Many experts predict that over the coming decades, the world's industrial economies will begin to shift away from their heavy reliance on fossil fuels to the use of non-polluting hydrogen, to run our cars, our homes, our offices and our power plants. A hydrogen economy might still be many years away, but innovative products on display recently in Washington provided a glimpse of what's to come.
Members of the U.S. Congress joined leaders in the fuel cell industry and the public on Capitol Hill for the 2007 Congressional Fuel Cell Expo. Su Carroll from Martinsburg, West Virginia, showed up to test-drive a fuel cell car. "It is a little heavier than the cars I am used to driving, but it is something that I could get used to. It's smooth. It's quiet."
The metallic blue General Motors HydroGen3 Opel Zafira is a prototype of things to come, says Mathew Atwell, a GM fuel cell engineer who shows Carroll the fuel stack under the hood. "There is no engine, no internal combustion engine whatsoever. We do use hydrogen as a fuel source, but we are not burning it."
The fuel cell operates much like a battery. The box-like component takes hydrogen stored in tanks under the rear seats and combines it with oxygen from the air. That generates electricity to drive the vehicle. The only thing that comes out of the engine's exhaust pipe is water vapor, one reason the hydrogen car scores high marks with environmental groups.
Whatever its virtues, though, the hydrogen car isn't likely to solve today's auto pollution problems. Deron Lovaas runs the Vehicles Campaign for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group. He says hydrogen fuel cell cars won't be on the road any time soon. "One of the first barriers is designing cars and trucks so that they have adequate on-board storage to power the fuel cells, and the cost of the fuel cells themselves."
Lovaas says another obstacle is infrastructure, the network of hydrogen-fuel pumping stations on which the new cars would depend. He adds that a better strategy for solving U.S. energy and pollution problems is to sharpen the national focus on energy conservation and to promote increased gasoline fuel economy for vehicles already on the road.
While the fuel cell car may not be in Su Carroll's future, it is the hook that gets her inside the nearby congressional office building for a closer look at a wide array of products with applications for aircraft, telecommunications, and small industrial facilities.
UTC Power has a long history in the field. Their giant parent firm, United Technologies, developed fuel cells early on for the American space program. Spokeswoman Judith Bear says UTC Power has brought the fuel cell back to earth and deployed it worldwide. "Things like a 200 kilowatt fuel cell system for stationary power plants, for schools, hospitals, military installations, for hotels and for data centers."
In addition to power plants, Bear says UTC is also working on fuel cells for cars, buses and other mass transit vehicles, the largest emitters of carbon dioxide and other climate-changing greenhouse gases. "We're really excited. We have a fuel cell bus operating in our home state of Connecticut. And just Monday of this week we announced another fuel cell bus operating in Belgium."
Fuel cells could soon play a major role in consumer electronics, too. Greg Moreland with MTI Micro-Fuel Cells in Albany, New York, says his company is designing a fuel cell, currently about the size of a thick paperback book, which will eventually power mobile phones. "What we are going to be doing is reducing the size of this to make it more and more consumer friendly, and a person who really lives off of a cell phone is going to be able to take a device like this, attach it to a cell phone and talk for hours."
Bob Rose, Executive Director of the U.S. Fuel Cell Council, the trade group that organizes the annual event, urges the federal government to contribute more research money, to provide tax incentives for product development, and to adopt fuel cell technology in government operations.
Su Carroll, who came to the Expo to test drive a fuel cell car, backs these initiatives. She says she hopes tomorrow's hydrogen economy will create a world where her grandchildren will be able to breath easier. "This is something that can benefit all Americans, all people of the earth."