By Leigh Howe
Fuel cells are not a new idea. They were first invented in 1839 by Welsh chemist William Grove. The process, simply stated, is converting hydrogen and water into electricity. The discovery languished for more than 100 years before the U.S. space program needed a renewable power source for its Gemini spacecraft.
Why the buzz about fuel cells today? Last month the Energy Department announced that it would boost research in automotive fuel cells. The initiative is called FreedomCAR and it will support projects at government labs and the Big Three automakers. Proponents of the fuel cells envision them powering everything from laptops, cell phones and automobiles to large office buildings. Right now, fuel cells are commercial available as power sources for buildings and machinery. A recent announcement also touts a fuel cell powered vacuum cleaner!
The Challenges. The automotive industry, by most accounts, is the major focus for fuel cell commercialization. However, many challenges stand in the way including increasing cell durability, reducing cost, and improving fuel storage not to mention the major challenge of creating an infrastructure to extract and deliver the hydrogen fuel. Critics has also have poked holes in the recent Energy Department plan claiming that the program lacks clear goals and a way to measure progress. The bottom line is mass market fuel-cell use is likely still ten years away.