Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles
The invention of the automobile added speed to our lives - and the
burden of rising oil prices and depleting fossil fuel reserves.
The consequence of 100 years of dependence on hydrocarbons has been
disastrous. Toxic fumes from millions of vehicles the world over
is choking the earth, polluting air, land and water, either directly
or indirectly. It is also responsible for the onset of global warming.
The time has now come to get automobiles to make a clean break
with the oil industry, a relationship they shared ever since cars
were invented. The answer may lie in Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles
powered by hydrogen. The concept is incredibly attractive - coming
up with a car that spews out nothing but clean water.
The fuel cell (FC) is a relatively new type of power-generation
device that produces electricity through the chemical reaction between
hydrogen and oxygen. The only waste products are water and heat.
But it's not that simple putting theory into practice. There are
hurdles, but not insurmountable ones.
Oxygen is fairly easy to get. The problem lies with hydrogen. Producing,
storing and distributing it is anything but easy, and this has been
the one of the main reasons why fuel cells haven't taken off since
their invention 150 years ago.
The Fuel Cell
A fuel cell system comprises a fuel cell stack and peripheral
components for the supply of hydrogen and oxygen (air). The stack
consists of layers of cells, each of which features a high-polymer
electrolyte membrane sandwiched between two electrodes.
This membrane has just the right moisture content so that the hydrogen
ions can diffuse through it, resulting in the generation of electricity.
Before fuel cells can be put to widespread use in cars, they must
be made more compact and reliable. They should also be able to operate
with a smaller amount of catalyst. The hydrogen-powered engine will
be dependent on an extensive fuel supply.
Not so the FC-EV which is more flexible: it can rely on
methanol reforming. This means that instead of hydrogen, an FC-EV
can fill up with methanol at a fuel stand. Pumping methanol is very
similar to pumping gasoline and hence prevailing infrastructure
can be put to use.
Today there is a worldwide focus on the FC-EV as a practical means
of transportation. The race is on to launch the first mass-produced
FCEV with over 60 companies around the world working on fuel cell
The first production-ready vehicles are expected to hit the roads
some time in 2004. General Motors has taken the lead in fuel cells
with the launch of the HydroGen 1, an FCEV based on the Opel Zafira
MPV, which it claims is the most advanced yet.
This progress augurs well for the future. FC-EV will become the
vehicle of the future, hastening the dawn of a hydrogen-based society.
For a country like India, where pollution has reached alarming levels,
there is an overwhelming need to embrace fuel cell technology.
Present costs may be probihitive, but a few years down the line,
when the technology becomes cheaper, India should not miss out on
the fuel cell advantage.
There is also a need to create awareness amongst industry, policy
makers and various research organisations. The government should
take proactive measures to set up hydrogen fuelling networks in
our most polluted cities.
This can be undertaken in a phased manner with a realistic target
date, say by 2010. This will ensure a smooth transition from a petroleum
economy to a hydrogen economy.