According to reports flying around in the motor press recently, the race to start mass-producing pollution-free hydrogen fuel cell vehicles is well and truly on.
The Sukuki Motor Corporation for example, started a joint venture with UK-based Intelligence Energy just last year to develop its air-cooled fuel cell system and has already announced that they expect to begin manufacture of an ‘affordable’ mass market vehicle as early as 2015.
Other major manufacturers are also jostling for position with Daimler recently announcing plans to pool resources with Ford and Nissan to also develop and manufacture their first mass production fuel cell engine for road-vehicle use by 2017.
BMW and Toyota too have teamed up in the race, although they are currently predicting an end product by 2020.
The basic technology behind hydrogen fuel cells has actually been around since the mid 1800s when a Welsh physicist by the name of William Grove first discovered how to convert the chemical energy from fuels such as hydrogen into electricity.
That nearly 200 years later we are still talking about being ‘on the verge’ of harnessing that knowledge for the purpose of propelling our personal transport devices, probably says quite a lot about the technology’s chief drawback, its safety. Or, to be fair, the general public’s perception of its safety. Which is important when it comes to selling cars.
The main problem being that in order to work, the hydrogen in a fuel cell must either be mechanically cooled (which uses up a lot of energy in itself and therefore affects the overall economics) or stored under pressure. Which is where the perception of danger seems to emanate from.
A problem Suzuki hopes to address with its air-cooled system, which should allow for mass production to begin in a little under 2 years.
Assuming for now that this is the case, it does lead us rather neatly to what we think of as the ‘bigger picture’ when it comes to the use of hydrogen fuel cells in cars. An idea first brought to our attention by Prof. dr. Ad J.M. van Wijk at the Delft University of Technology, in the Netherlands, who, while admitting that the technology isn’t quite there yet, envisages a world where our homes are powered by our cars. Our hydrogen fuel cell cars.
“There are currently two major bottlenecks regarding electric driving on batteries alone: the range and the long charging time. This is why we are seeing so many hybrid electric cars, which also have an engine that produces electricity from fuel, albeit inefficiently.
A lot of hard work and research is going into fuel cells. By means of a chemical process, fuel cells can convert fuel into electricity at an efficiency of approximately 50%.
So fuel cells would actually give us a very efficient electricity power station in our car. When parked, which is approximately 93% of the time, we would be able to use them to generate electricity. The car is normally idle in the car park. So if we were to connect not only an electric cable to the car, but also a fuel pipe, we would be able to use the fuel cell in the car to generate electricity. In addition to electricity, we also produce a ‘waste’ product, namely clean water: just under half a liter of clean water per kWh.
So let ́s make a calculation. An average engine has a capacity of around 80 kW. If there are 500 cars in a car park, we will have an electricity power station of 40 MW, 10 times as powerful as the new cogenerating (CHP) power station currently being built here at the university. A power station of this size could easily generate all the electricity TU Delft needs. And we would be producing barrels of clean water as a by-product.
This would give us a highly efficient, flexible, easy to regulate electricity power station. A power station like this is also easy to combine with electricity from renewable and fluctuating sources, such as solar and wind. And do you know what the best part is? Parking would not cost a penny; in fact it would generate income. Could this be our very own electric cash cow?
Using our cars as an electricity power station of the future would give us a huge power station. Every year, the Dutch buy 500,000 new cars. In total, this would result in an electricity production park generating 40,000 MW per year, twice as much as the electricity production capacity of the current Dutch set-up. In fact, we would be creating a tremendous surplus of local, small-scale, flexible production capacity. Would this make our present electricity power stations redundant? And how would this affect our infrastructure?
In the future, how would our electricity supply be organized and look like? We generate local electricity using the sun, wind and movement. We produce biogas from our organic waste and biomass. And our cars give us local, highly flexible and small-scale power capacity. Together, we will be producing our own electricity and will own a huge capacity of flexible, efficient electricity power stations. Car manufacturers will produce and supply these electricity power stations.
Telecom companies make sure that everything is properly organized, coordinated and paid for. What would be left for the electricity companies to do?
Could this view of the future become a reality? In terms of the technology, there is still a lot to do; better fuel cells with a longer lifespan, proper and efficient production of hydrogen, safe hydrogen storage facilities and infrastructure, et cetera. But we will also need an awful lot more innovation and research, a reorganization of energy supplies, new business models, new legislation, and new control and management systems. And then there are the safety aspects, the environmental and social implications. In short, we still have a long way to go. Here in Delft, we want to take the first step by building a car park that functions as an electricity power station.”