Driving a car that leaves only water vapour in its wake is the stuff of environmentalists’ dreams, but new technology means the pollution-free car is fast becoming a reality.
Imagine driving a car that emits only pure water vapour and little else. Moreover, one that used residual water for fuel thus doing away with refuelling.
This is not taken from a futuristic scene in the latest science fiction film – prototypes of such cars already exist in the laboratories of global auto manufacturing giants.
Facing depleting oil reserves and growing pollution levels, car companies are investing substantial amounts to research the viability of fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs).
What is a fuel cell?
In principle, a fuel cell operates like a battery. However, unlike a battery, a fuel cell does not run down or require recharging while providing electricity, so long as fuel is continually supplied.
“They are basically devices that convert the chemical energy of a fuel directly and very efficiently into electricity, thus doing away with combustion”, says Daimler Chrysler India MD Hans-Michael Huber, who previously worked on fuel cells in Germany.
The most suitable fuel for such cells is hydrogen or a mixture of compounds containing hydrogen like methanol or even water.
Though fuel cells have been used in space flights, their best use seems to lie in powering cars.
“Compared to vehicles powered by internal combustion engines, fuel cell powered vehicles have very high energy conversion efficiency – almost double that of currently used engines – and near-zero pollution, CO2 and water vapour being the only emissions”, says Chetan Maini of Reva, whose company is developing automobile fuel cell solutions.
Fuel cell powered electric vehicles (EVs) also score highly over their battery-operated counterparts in terms of higher efficiency, besides being easier and faster to refuel. The only emission from a fuel cells is water when hydrogen is fed into it.
Types of fuel cells
There are different types of fuel cells and their applications range from powering a laptop computer – a few watts – to powering utility power plants – a few megawatts.
These fuel cells include the proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell, phosphoric acid fuel cell (PAFC), molten carbonate fuel cell (MCFC) and, the solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC).
Of these, PEM fuel cells have been found to be the most suitable for powering vehicles.
Canada’s Ballard Power Systems and Germany’s Daimler-Benz are world leaders in fuel cell technology.
In 1990, Ballard launched its first emissions-free passenger bus powered by fuel cells running directly on hydrogen gas.
Active in developing cars, van and bus FCEVs for tomorrow are Daimler Benz, Toyota, Nissan, Mazda, Toshiba, GM, Ford, Chrysler, Siemens, Volvo, Volkswagen and Energy Partners.
While earlier FCEVs carried hydrogen on board to fuel the cell, both Daimler-Benz and Toyota use methanol as fuel which it cleverly converts into hydrogen.
Since Toyota recently launched FCEV at the 2003 Tokyo Motor Show, the car of the future has been approved for commercial production, making it the frontrunner in its class.
Daimler Chrysler has also made major leaps with its own Necar 5 prototype, while BMW and Honda have started public runs of theirs.
Yamaha has launched the first ever prototype motorbike powered by fuel cell.
According to N P Singh, an adviser at the Ministry Of Non-Conventional Energy Sources (MNES), India is a leading player in fuel cell development.
A large number of public and private sector Indian research and engineering majors have been developing fuel cell solutions for years.
Key players are the Centre for Energy Research, SPIC Science Foundation, the Gas Authority India Limited and the Indian Institute of Science.
The Hydrogen Energy Development Board was formed to co-ordinate and implement fuel cell development in India.
A project was even initiated by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to launch a fleet of fuel cell buses in India’s capital New Delhi. The project was a joint venture with MNES and the Global Environment Fund (GEF).
However, according to Usha Rai of UNDP, the government seemed to have lost interest and the project got stalled.
Had it gone ahead, India would have been the world’s first developing nation to boast of cutting edge fuel cell buses and may have paved the way for future transportation technologies, says Rai.
At present, the technology is operational in Vancouver, Chicago and California. The UNDP soon plans to introduce the technology in Brazil and China.
Studies say that if by 2020 all diesel buses in developing countries were to be replaced by fuel-cell buses operating on hydrogen produced from natural gas, it would help choke nearly 440 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions each year.
Additionally, up to 40 per cent of airborne particulate matter swirling over major cities could also be eliminated.
However, with the buses costing $1m each, few countries would be able to afford them. Singh says the actual reason for the failure of UNDP programme in India was the very high cost of the buses.
Fuel cells would define the cars of the future but Huber says it could be another decade before they are widely adopted.
Industry experts believe the internal combustion engine and the hybrids, which combine it with an electric motor, will dominate in the near and mid-term.
Toyota was the first automobile manufacturer to sell a mass-produced hybrid car when it introduced the ‘Prius’ in 1997. Soon after, Honda launched its ‘Insight’ model.
However, powering cars is just part of fuel cell applications.
STMicroelectronics have developed tiny fuel cells to power cellular phones while Hitachi is working on fuel cell-powered laptops.
“Using fuel cells instead of batteries would make mobile phones lighter and much more convenient to use as they could be simply topped up with fuel whenever necessary,” says Salvo Coffa, who leads the Corporate Technology R&D team that is researching micro fuel cell technology.
Fuel cell vehicles have been receiving increasing attention worldwide as a long-term alternative to conventional traction systems.
However, fuel cell vehicles can become commercially viable once a hydrogen-refuelling infrastructure is in place.