Fuel Cell Future in the USA

Fuel cells got their early start in Britain but remained relatively unpopular until the late 1950s when the United States space program recognized their value for producing electricity and drinkable water for manned spaceflight. This interest by NASA led to the development of early phosphoric acid fuel cells, which have been an integral part of all manned space flights from the Apollo missions of the 1960s all the way up to the most recent launch of the Space Shuttle, a program which has been discontinued.

Following the interest in phosphoric acid fuel cells came interest in stationary fuel cells such as molten carbonate and solid oxide. These fuel cells were seen as an efficient utilization of hydrocarbon fuels and a means of increasing efficiency of electrical and heat generation.

Unfortunately, the 1980s brought about a drop in research and development of fuel cell technology in favor of technologies like nickel metal hydride and lithium ion batteries. These technologies were useful for powering the burgeoning portable microprocessor market including laptops and mobile telephones.

The Hydrogen Economy

In the early part of the 21st century, there was a great deal of talk about the “hydrogen economy.” In 2003, the then President George W. Bush proposed an investment of one billion U.S. dollars into developing hydrogen fuel cells for use in automotive applications. Because the transportation sector of most industrialized economies accounts for 70% of fossil fuel use, this seemed the most reasonable target for a transition to hydrogen fuel and the area in which hydrogen technology must have an impact in order to be meaningful. At that time, President Bush suggested that a child born in 2003 would be driving a hydrogen vehicle as his first car. That indicated the timeline for development of approximately 20 years, something that would turn out to be overly ambitious.

Interest in hydrogen skyrocketed after the Bush announcement and led to investments by major automotive companies the world over. From hydrogen burning internal combustion engine to PEMFCs, research progressed at lightning pace. Unfortunately, a major obstacle became the transport and storage of hydrogen in quantities large enough to provide practical distances between refueling. This problem remains at present with no practical or affordable method of storing hydrogen fuel.

The other impediment to the hydrogen economy is the production of hydrogen itself. The only clean way to produce it is through electrolysis using energy from renewable resources like solar and wind. Unfortunately, those technologies are also not well advanced, meaning there is not nearly enough hydrogen to meet the demands of a completely converted economy. The result is that hydrogen would have to be steam-reformed from hydrocarbon fuels, which brings the problem full circle back to the production of greenhouse gases.

The Future of the Hydrogen Economy

Unfortunately, in 2009, the Obama Administration reversed much of the investment that promised a hydrogen economy. Energy Secretary Stephen Chu indicated that the government would prefer to focus on projects that would “bear fruit more quickly” as estimates of when hydrogen would replace conventional fuels ballooned from 20 years to 40 years and in some cases, over 100 years. In some ways, this represented a backward step in fuel cell technology as research and development dollars were diverted away from hydrogen fuel cells toward stationary fuel cells.

As the focus shifted from energy independence to what seemed at the time to be the immediate concern of global warming, the Obama Administration found it more important to reduce carbon dioxide emissions quickly than to plan for the long-term future of the nation’s energy independence and predict that plan upon an untested technology that had seemingly hit an insurmountable roadblock. As a result, focus on reducing carbon emissions from hydrocarbon fuels became more important than creating zero carbon emissions through the use of hydrogen fuels.

Fuel cell technology has not been completely abandoned, but rather the focus has shifted from transportation based hydrogen fuel cells to stationary hydrocarbon fuel cells. Specifically, there has been a tremendous interest in coal-based systems. It is suggested that stationary power systems based on fuel cells that utilize gas derived from coal could be 60% efficient by 2025. Additionally, it is speculated that it is possible to remove the majority of carbon from these fields underground, thereby sequestering it and preventing its emission into the atmosphere. The sequestration efforts would reduce carbon emissions by 90%. Though not perfect, it is certainly a tremendous step in a positive direction. The Department of Energy has invested substantial resources in what it calls the Integrated Gasification Fuel Cell.

As it currently stands, most major U.S. manufacturers such as General Motors, Ford Motor Company, and Daimler Chrysler have abandoned or mostly abandoned their hydrogen fuel cell projects. Without the government subsidies and due at least in part to the recent collapse of the financial system, many automotive manufacturers have found it uneconomical to invest in hydrogen fuel cells. Rather, the new trend is in electric vehicles and in batteries capable of long periods between recharging. The focus now is to maximize the efficiency of the electrical grid in order to create an infrastructure of electric cars that reduces overall emissions. So long as the electricity is generated cleanly, then electric cars are also zero emissions.

There may be some role for reversible fuel cells to play in the new electric economy, though the extent of that role has yet to be determined. Current trends seem to be a repeat of the 1980s. It remains to be seen if the U.S. will once again return to fuel cells after a second foray into batteries. It may be that a combination of the two technologies will ultimately prevail. The U.S. continues to invest in hydrogen fuel cells, particularly at the private level, but not at the level it once did.