Fuel cells will completely revolutionize
the oil and gas industry:
- Within five years.
- In 20 years.
- Probably never.
The correct answer depends on who's grading the quiz.
And the answer will certainly affect the petroleum
The United States government recently put its heft
behind fuel-cell technology for passenger vehicles, as Energy Secretary
Spencer Abraham recently announced a new public-private research
program, Freedom Cooperative Automotive Research (CAR), to explore
fuel cell use in vehicles.
Freedom CAR will operate as a partnership between
the U.S. Department of Energy and the automakers' Council for Automotive
Research, he said.
"The government and the private sector will fund
research into advanced, efficient fuel-cell technology, which uses
hydrogen to power automobiles without creating any pollution," Abraham
proclaimed at the Detroit Auto Show in January.
He described the effort as "a big win for everyone."
A related press release noted that the U.S. transportation sector's
almost total dependence on petroleum, especially imported oil, "cannot
That decision came about one month after Chrysler
Group introduced its third-generation fuel-cell concept vehicle,
the Town & Country Natrium minivan.
Unlike earlier fuel-cell concept models, the Natrium
runs on sodium borohydride, a compound related to borax.
Thomas Moore, a DaimlerChrysler vice president, said
"there are no hydrocarbons to contribute to greenhouse gas buildup,
no smog-producing emissions and the fuel can be recycled."
Ballard Power Systems of British Columbia, a fuel-cell
manufacturer, says "fuel-cell engines, based on the Ballard fuel
cell, will be comparable to conventional engines in size, weight,
operating life, acceleration and speed, range and refueling time."
Some enthusiasts picture fuel cells everywhere, even
powering your wristwatch and cell phone. The educational Web site
predicts "fuel-cell-powered cars will start to replace gas- and
diesel-engine cars in about 2005."
But talk to fuel-cell researchers and that timetable
stretches out considerably.
"Things are really up in the air right now," said
William Swift, project manager for the Fuel Cells Transportation
Program at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.
"They're pushing the hydrogen economy to fuel these
fuel cells," he said, "and we don't have a hydrogen infrastructure."
Works Like This ...
A fuel cell electrochemically combines hydrogen and
oxygen, producing electricity, heat and pure water. A polymer electrolyte
membrane or proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell consists of
- An anode.
- A cathode.
- A thin electrolyte membrane.
- A catalyst.
In the anode, the catalyst promotes separation of
hydrogen into protons and electrons. The protons pass through the
membrane to the cathode, and the electrons exit to an external circuit.
PEM fuel cells typically use ordinary air in the
cathode. Oxygen combines with protons and electrons from the external
circuit, giving off heat and water. Fuel cells differ in the types
of material they employ and the heat at which they operate. Solid
oxide fuel cells can utilize ceramic components and operate at 1,000
Because fuel cells produce little or no pollution
and can operate with four times the energy efficiency of a gasoline
internal-combustion engine, they represent desirable technology.
That technology remains in the development stage,
Without a direct hydrogen supply, fuel cells require
a converter device, know as a "reformer." The reformer produces
hydrogen from a hydrocarbon, alcohol or other hydrogen-rich material.
Adding a reformer reduces the overall efficiency of the system,
and can increase pollution levels.
Fuel cells also are low-voltage devices that must
be stacked to produce a required level of electrical current.
And fuel cells are relatively expensive to manufacture
and operate, in relation to their output.
Right now, fuel-cell technology might be seen as
a somewhat awkward way to make very expensive electricity.
A Hybrid Development
In January, just a week after Abraham's announcement
in Detroit, Arthur D. Little Inc. (ADL) and DRI-WEFA announced they
had completed a joint study of probable developments in light-vehicle
powertrains until the year 2020.
ADL scientists, engineers and management experts
consult on business and technologies. DRI-WEFA is an analytical-based
company that provides market intelligence and insight for focused
industry sectors, including autos and energy.
The study concluded that gasoline- and diesel-fueled
internal combustion engines will continue to dominate the vehicle
market until that time. Fuel cells may start to make some market
inroads near 2020, but only if development efforts now under way
J.R. Linna, manager of ADL's automotive technology
group in Cambridge, Mass., said several clients wanted a comprehensive
assessment of evolving technologies in passenger vehicles, which
led to the ADL/DRI-WEFA study.
"Both of our organizations have received requests
for a little longer view in looking at what the powertrains of light-duty
vehicles might be over the next 20 years," he explained.
The study is titled "Future Powertrain Technologies:
2008 to 2020." Linna said the companies projected out from 2008,
because "beyond that point, the crystal balls of the automakers
begin to get fuzzy."
Potential technology developments in North America,
Western Europe and Asia provided the focus for the research. But
the study also contemplated worldwide vehicle demand, as well as
energy price and supply scenarios.
"We had to understand what might bound the future
business situation," Linna said. "One of the things we looked at
was the overall price for fuel and its availability."
Vehicle fuels should remain readily available and
affordable to 2020, although demand will rise, said Philip Gott,
director of automotive consulting for DRI-WEFA in Lexington, Mass.
"Between 1990 and 2020 the overall oil consumption
for vehicle use will double," Gott said. "We use 1990 as a baseline
because that's where Kyoto is pegged."
Vehicles in North America, Western Europe and Japan
will become more fuel-efficient, but that reduction in fuel use
gets "swamped by rising levels of motorization and miles traveled"
in Latin America and Asia, he noted.
In the joint study's basic scenario, conventional
drivetrains make up only 32 percent of the market by 2020.
Fuel-cell technology is most likely to have little
if any impact, but micro-hybrid vehicles are projected to claim
57 percent of the market.
Gott defined micro-hybrids as vehicles with a combination
of battery-electric power and liquid-fuel, internal-combustion engine
power. A 42-volt electrical system starts and stops the engine when
the vehicle comes to a temporary stand-still, such as at a traffic
"One of the nice things about micro-hybrid availability
is that it enables the carmakers to offer vehicle features and amenities
that the consumer already wants and is willing to pay for," Gott
said. "These are features such as a heated windscreen for rapid
de-icing, for instance, and a heated steering wheel," Gott said.
The powertrain study assessed four categories of
hybrid vehicles, with increasing levels of electric torque assist.
It projects that full-hybrid vehicles, capable of running for a
short time on engine or battery power alone, will claim only 4 percent
of the market by 2020.
Hybridization does result in significant fuel efficiencies,
but the overall effect on global demand for petroleum, Gott said,
"still gets overridden by increases in motorization in Asia and
In addition to economics and technology, the demand
for fuel can be affected by government mandates. Requirements and
restrictions influence what kinds of vehicles are on the road, and
what type of infrastructure exists to refuel them.
"If you wanted to decrease fuel demand, for whatever
reason, how is that decrease in consumption to be obtained?" Gott
asked. "In the absence of a substantial increase in fuel price,
it's got to be obtained by legislative will."
Linna said some effects of legislated fuel requirements
are factored into the powertrain study.
"For instance," he said, "we are anticipating that
the programs that have been announced in Europe, the recently announced
biofuels directive, will be implemented."
Under those directives, biofuels will replace 6 percent
of conventional fuels in Europe by 2010, with a goal of 20 percent
replacement by 2020.
Fuel-cell technology doesn't show much influence
in overall reduction of global fuel demand, partly because "the
use of a fuel cell on a fuel-cell vehicle does not eliminate the
need for fuel.
"It may reduce it," Gott said, "or change the ultimate
form in which it is used, but not eliminate it."
A bigger consideration is the time needed for new
vehicle technologies to be adopted fully in the market. Linna cited
a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report, "Light-Duty Automotive
Technology and Fuel Economy Trends, 1975 through 2001."
The authors of the EPA report found that "it may
take a decade for a technology to prove itself and attain a sales
fraction of 40 percent to 50 percent (of the market), and as long
as another five or 10 years to reach maximum market penetration."
That's to say, even if a fuel-cell researcher shouts
"Eureka!" today, your next vehicle still won't have a fuel-cell
"If you had a technological breakthrough tomorrow,
and you had it along every point of the critical path, and that
technology is in the laboratory stage now, how long would it take
to become a significant factor in the marketplace? It's unlikely
to happen before 2020," said Gott.
"It's not going to happen by 2005, no matter how
badly you wanted it."
Wanted: New Infrastructures
In the meantime, conventional technologies
will go through a process of development, as well. Vehicle efficiency
can advance with today's technology, Gott noted.
"Is there anything left in the internal combustion
engine? The answer is, 'Absolutely.' The diesel, which is 30 percent
more efficient, we hardly use (for passenger vehicles) in this country,"
Today's fueling infrastructure -- petrol stations
-- might take even longer to replace, especially if hydrogen becomes
the fuel of choice. That's partly a matter of government will, as
well, according to Gott.
"If the Bush administration really gets behind the
Freedom CAR and says we're going to have a hydrogen infrastructure
by 2020, then we just might have it," he said.
That appears unlikely at the moment. Gott and Linna
put the chances of the United States creating a hydrogen infrastructure
by 2020 at less than 5 percent.
Developing a practical, economic, on-vehicle fuel
reformer also looks like a problem. "Scaling it down to automobile
size is problematic," said Swift at the Argonne lab. He sees another
possible solution for hydrogen delivery.
"If we go that way, and that's the way things seem
to be headed, you may see hydrogen refueling stations showing up
in dedicated situations," he said.
Those stations could serve the needs of an organization
or municipality with a fleet of fuel-cell vehicles, according to
Swift. It's a way to ease into infrastructure change.
Swift said the Argonne lab concentrates its research
efforts on low-temperature, high power density fuel-cell technology.
"We work mostly in polymer electrolyte membrane fuel
cells. That's the one all the car companies are looking at for their
vehicles," he explained. "I think every major car company in the
world has (fuel-cell concept) vehicles running."
Fuel cells that operate at much higher temperatures
than the PEM have both a heat and a start-up problem.
"If you have a high-temperature fuel cell and you
have to start it up from ambient conditions," he said, "that's not
Because fuel cells are still in the development stage,
they lack the pricing benefit of mass-production economics.
Their cost-output ratio, which should fall as the
technology advances, remains very high.
Swift said "fuel cells are probably two orders of
magnitude too high right now," generating electricity at the equivalent
of $5,000 per kilowatt, compared to the $50 per kilowatt reasonable
for a commercial application.
Does that make fuel-cell technology a dead end? Not
Passenger vehicles just aren't the first and best
use. As a stationary power source, fuel cells show growing promise.
In the United States, fuel-cell research for light
vehicle applications may be government-driven, for the near future.
Here's a paragraph from the Freedom CAR news release:
"America's transportation sector is 95 percent dependent
on petroleum, with transportation consuming 67 percent of the petroleum
used in the U.S. The Federal government and its industry partners
recognize the steady growth of imported oil needed to meet U.S.
requirements -- today about 10 million barrels of foreign oil each
day -- cannot continue."
Based on a desire to reduce oil imports:
- The U.S. government has chosen to emphasize new technology
and fuel efficiency standards.
- Environmentalists promote conservation.
- The petroleum industry advocates increased exploration opportunities,
offshore of California and Florida and in Alaska.
More and more, the general public argues that a mix
of all three is needed: conservation, increased exploration and
That's an argument government officials, environmentalists
and oil industry executives and government officials are finding
increasingly difficult to answer.