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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 vehicle powertrains.

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.

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