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Fuel Cells Reexamined

NPR's All Things Considered today featured an interview (audio only) with journalist Matt Wald, "author of an article questioning the optimistic vision of the so-called "hydrogen economy" published in the May 2004 issue of Scientific American. Wald talks about the shortcomings of fuel-cell technology, and why some experts say the technology may not meet expectations."

Matt Wald: The catch is hydrogen is very difficult to make, and it turns out while hydrogen is very clean, the process for making it lets off lots of pollution. In addition, the fuel cell is extremely expensive. If you took the same amount of money and put it into less high-tech technologies, you could end up cleaning up a lot better.

Robert Siegel: Now you present in the Scientific American article the concept of "wells to wheels" efficiency.

Wald: Right.

Siegel: Not just figuring out how efficient is it to put that stuff in the car and make the car run, but what about creating that source of energy in the first place?

Wald: Right. If you think about gasoline, it's not a natural product. You've gotta find oil, drill it, pull it out of the ground, send it to a refinery, clean it up, truck it to a gas station, put it in your car, and then burn it, and you lose a littel bit of energy every step of the way, like a bucket brigade., and you let off a little bit of pollution every step of the way. The nice thing about the fuel cell is in the last step, it's very clean and very efficient, but all the steps leading up to it are dirty, so you've gotta find either natural gas, which you then take and strip out the carbon portion so you're left with hydrogen, or you take coal from a mine, you burn it in a power plant, you make electricity, and you use that to make hydrogen with the electricity. Whatever process you use, it's a long chain, and it loses something every step of the way...

Siegel: So if you analyze this entire process -- and you cite scientists and economists who do this -- from the point of getting the source of the energy through to the vehicle and what it uses when it drives, what is more efficient? What is cleaner than a fuel cell car?

Wald: At the moment, if you go out and buy a new hybrid automobile, which uses an internal combustion engine and uses a battery -- so it soaks up the extra energy and the battery gives it back when you need it -- that is approximately as clean as a fuel cell car...

Siegel: You've described both the expense and also the pollution created by creating hydrogen, but if there were actually more of a hydrogen fuel cell economy, isn't it conceivable that there would be developed cleaner or more efficient ways of generating hydrogen?

Wald: Yes, absolutely, and you can already make hydrogen completely cleanly using solar cells and using windmills. The question, though, is those are both extremely expensive, and if you had a fixed quantity of windmills, what would be the best thing to do with them? It turns out from the point of view of pollution and the greenhouse, that you should use the wind energy turned into electricity to substitute for the dirtiest fuel now in use. The dirtiest fuel now in use is not gasoline; gasoline's pretty clean. The dirtiest fuel now in use is coal. You'd be better off to use that electricity to displace coal rather than to make hydrogen and thus displace gasoline.

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