General Motors is optimistic that it can go into production with fuel cell vehicles by 2010.
Fuel cell-powered vehicles could be widely available by 2010, not 2020 as President Bush has suggested, General Motors said on Monday.
The White House said last week it hopes experts will be able to decide by 2015 whether hydrogen-powered fuel cells are commercially viable. And Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said the Bush administration believes automakers could bring fuel cell vehicles to showrooms by 2020.
But Larry Burns, the head of GM's research and development, said his company plans to keep its 2010 timetable. "You've got to put it out there because the main message is if you're not driving to make this viable on a high volume, profitable, affordable basis, you shouldn't be doing it," Burns said.
It's called Hy-wire, and it's a one-of-a-kind prototype: a four-door sedan fueled by hydrogen, capable of speeds of 100 miles an hour, whisper-quiet, and emitting no pollution at all — only water vapor as exhaust. It looks like a spaceship, with glass all around and no pedals or steering wheel.
Jeff Wolak, the engineer who travels with Hy-wire and mothers it, explained that it is drive-by-wire, controlled by electronics and computers rather than cables and hydraulics. To accelerate, you rotate the handgrips. To steer, you move the grips up or down.
The automotive equivalent of aircraft fly-by-wire comes to cars. This also brings us closer to the day of automated computer driving. No physical human force would be needed to operate any of the controls. One can imagine hybrid steps where, say, a single car on a freeway is networked to a line of cars behind it and the driver of the front car chooses a path and speed that all cars behind also follow.
Some argue for interim use of hybrid vehicles with gasoline engine plus electric and battery in combination. The problem holding back electric powered cars has always been weight and cost of the batteries. Hence the need for a hybrid design in order to use electric at all. Batteries are not the only way to store energy however, French company Moteur Developpement International (MDI) has developed a prototype vehicle that runs on the energy stored in compressed air. Compressed air storage hits up against similar capacity problems that batteries have. This has led Ford Motor Company and some collaborators to propose compressed air hybrid vehicles.
A soon-to-be-released study projects that an air hybrid engine could improve fuel economy 64 percent in city driving and 12 percent in highway driving. Scientists from the University of California, Ford Motor Company and consultant Michael M. Schechter will present their findings during the SAE 2003 World Congress, March 3 - 6, Cobo Center, Detroit, Michigan, USA.
Unless a really high energy density battery or a more efficient means of compressed air storage can be developed the future for vehicle propulsion is probably going to belong to fuel cells.
In spite of GM's aggressive schedule to begin using fuel cells in production cars it still seems more likely that fuel cells will be used as stationary power sources before they are used in transportation. Late in 2002 some researchers at Lawrence Berkely National Laboratory announced development of an alloy that will dramatically decrease the cost of stationary fuel cells.
The alloy is manufactured using the same process used to make metal filters that work in high temperature applications. Powdered steel is fired in an oxygen-free environment, which creates a porous metal. This stainless steel alloy is much stronger than ceramic, and unlike ceramic, it can be welded, brazed, hammered, and crimp-sealed. This translates to increased design flexibility and reduced manufacturing costs. Furthermore, the cost of stainless steel is approximately $2 per pound, while zirconia is between $30 and $60 per pound.
Alloy construction offers other advantages. A stable, high performance cathode can be operated at between 600 and 800 degrees Celsius. Efficiency loss due to current collection is minimized. And the alloy increases a fuel cell's strength as well as its electronic and thermal conductivity.
But does the design meet the $400 per kilowatt target? First, there's more to a fuel-cell-based generator than fuel cells. Roughly speaking, one-third of a generator's cost lies in the actual fuel cell stack, the other two-thirds lies in external "plumbing" such as insulation and a DC-to-AC inverter. This means the fuel cell stack can't exceed $130 per kilowatt if the entire unit is to meet the $400 per kilowatt target. No problem there: the raw materials for the Berkeley Lab stainless steel-based fuel cell are only $37 per kilowatt.
"The low cost of a metal-based SOFC's raw materials, and its design flexibility, should allow a stack to be manufactured below the $130 fuel cell target," Visco says.
To meet the $400 generator target, the Berkeley Lab fuel cell must now be developed into planar and tubular stack designs, and paired with a low-cost inverter and other supporting technology.
Ultimately, such technology could play a key role in meeting the nation's growing demand for power without incurring a proportional jump in air pollution. According to a recent Department of Energy report, annual energy demand will increase from a current capacity of 363 million kilowatts to 750 million kilowatts by 2020.
Fuel cells will provide many benefits. They will provide more efficient ways to convert fossil fuels into electricity. They will do so with less pollution as well. But they are also an enabling technology for other energy technologies. When photovoltaics drop far enough in price then fuel cells will enhance the value of photovoltaics. Photovoltaics will be used to generate electricity when the sun in shining and the electricity will be storable by using hydrolysis to generate hydrogen gas from water. Then the hydrogen can be burned back into water when stationary electricity or automotive electricity is needed.
Fuel cells have a very bright future.
|Share |||Randall Parker, 2003 February 24 03:52 PM Energy Transportation|