The Fuel Cell Blues

The other night I watched a fascinating television show on PBS. The program was “NOVA,” which regularly deals with new developments across a broad range of scientific topics. In this particular show, the topic for discussion was fuel cells for automobiles.

The scientists pointed out that the current enthusiasm for fuel cells in automobiles is misguided. Their contention was that it will be decades before fuel cell vehicles will enter the mainstream economy and that we shouldn’t really use fuel cell cars at all.

The current problem for fuel cell technology is threefold: They can’t yet produce enough power in extreme heat or cold; hydrogen is very difficult to produce for consumption in automobiles; and hydrogen storage in automobiles is problematic at best.

The scientists pointed out that to develop a fuel cell economically, we would have to derive hydrogen from water. In order to do that, however, we’d have to use so much energy in extracting hydrogen from water molecules that the environmental gains from zero emission fuel cell cars would be offset by the energy production needed to produce the gas in the first place.

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Also, because hydrogen is a gas, not to mention a quite volatile gas, it needs to be stored in well insulated tanks. So, it order to have enough hydrogen to power a vehicle for any reasonable distance, you’d need to have a really big tank in your trunk.

With current technology, the scientists contended that consumers just won’t go for hydrogen vehicles because they can’t do what current vehicles do.

Therefore, it seems reasonable to assume that gasoline/electric hybrids are going to be a much more popular choice over the next few decades.

In my mind, a fuel cell power source is more practical serving the energy needs of an office building or your own home than serving the consumers needs in a vehicle. Most certainly, current fuel cell technology needs to advance significantly if it is going to work for our transportation needs. As investors, we obviously don’t want to jump on the fuel cell bandwagon just yet.