A fuel cell-powered vehicle (FCV) is basically an electric car that uses fuel cells as the primary power source. In such a car, hydrogen and oxygen are fed into the fuel cell, which produces electricity which is directed into the battery bank (conventional batteries are used) and the power controller. The battery bank is used to allow for varying amounts of power to be directed to the electric motor (fuel cells are poor at decreasing and increasing their power outputs at a fast enough rate to directly power the wheels, although this is changing with new technological developments).
The electric motor is connected to the drive wheels via a transmission (as it is in conventional vehicles). The power controller is connected to the accelerator pedal that the driver manipulates to control the vehicle speed. The battery also provides another benefit: If the fuel tank (hydrogen) goes dry, there will still be available power to get to the nearest refilling station.
With current technologies, fuel cells can convert around 50 percent of the potential energy in the hydrogen into useable electrical energy to power the vehicle. The rest of the energy transforms into heat, which is dissipated by an onboard cooling system (just like conventional autos that use radiators to cool the engine).
Following are the advantages, disadvantages, and challenges regarding broader use of FCVs:
✓ Efficiencies: FCVs help reduce dependence on foreign supplies of fossil fuels. Even if the hydrogen source is a fossil fuel, fuel cells offer far better efficiencies than conventional engines so demand for fossil fuels will be less when FCVs become commonly available. In addition, electric vehicles of all kinds are lighter weight than conventional vehicles because there is no need for heavy, mechanical drivetrains. This further enhances the efficiencies.
✓ Infrastructure: Before FCVs become common, there will have to be a lot of investment in infrastructure like special fueling stations and the transport of raw fuel sources to and fro. Fortunately, existing natural gas and methane pipelines can be used to channel hydrogen gas, so some infrastructure is already in existence, even though it will have to be modified.
✓ Environmental impact: The pollution generated by an FCV is a fraction of that exhausted by a conventional vehicle. When biomass is used as the source of hydrogen, the emissions are closed loop (I explain this phenomenon in Chapter 13).
✓ Cost: The current cost of hydrogen is currently very high, and availability is virtually nil. When hydrogen production facilities come on line for transportation, economies of scale will result in lower prices and hydrogen fuel cells will become more widely used as a result. The growth process will feed on itself. Government incentives are very encouraging for this technology, so the costs are being kept low in order to spur demand. Government incentives are growing every year.
The transport sector is going to drive the demand for fuel cells, and open up new residential and commercial building markets as prices decline.
✓ Transportation of fuel: Hydrogen can be produced locally and doesn't need to be manufactured in large industrial plants far removed from filling stations. Hydrogen can be produced at a residential level which means that it will be possible to completely forego filling stations.
✓ Operating range: The effective operating range of an FCV with a full tank of fuel is less than that for a fossil fuel-powered vehicle.
✓ Fuel tanks and car design: Onboard storage of fuel is problematic. Hydrogen tanks are difficult to build because the atoms are so small they permeate most metals. Fuel tanks will always be expensive and difficult to maintain. In addition, these tanks are larger and more complex than fossil fuel tanks and take up more space; since electrical vehicles are smaller and lighter weight, the interiors of FCVs are more cramped.
✓ Maintenance challenges: There are very few FCVs on the road now, and maintenance will be difficult because most mechanics have no idea how an FCV power source works. It is going to take not just a considerable investment in infrastructure, but also a considerable investment in training and licensing of qualified service personnel.
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