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Escaping Carbon Fuel

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Fuel Cell Energy For Green Transportation?

By James Donahue

Since the threat of peak oil became reality, and because of rising tension in the world's top oil producing nations, automobile engineers have been concentrating their efforts on developing engines that operate on alternative fuels.

To date, the most promising design involves the use of a proton-exchange membrane fuel cell that utilizes pure hydrogen and oxygen from the air to create an electrical current which, in turn, powers an engine.

Such engines have been built and they have proven themselves to be environmentally friendly. They utilize a simple and renewable source of energy, they do not burn carbon, and the only thing emitted from the exhaust pipe is pure water.

The concept is not as simple as it sounds. Engineers have been struggling with such problems as storing enough compressed hydrogen on a vehicle to allow it to travel distances comparable to those that run on gasoline, maintaining a cooling system that keeps the engine running at under 100 degrees Celsius, even on warm summer days or while crossing hot dry deserts, and obtaining an adequate supply of oxygen in the air while driving in elevated mountainous areas.

While major automobile companies in Japan and the United States have been working hard to market a practical car powered by hydrogen fuel cells, it seems that a British based company, Intelligent Energy, was the first to succeed. But other car-makers, including Daimler, Linde, Honda, Opel and Toyota have since emerged with zero-emission fuel cell electric vehicles.

The car-makers in Europe and the Far East are in a race to put these vehicles on the road by 2014. But in the meantime, there is an infrastructure challenge that is more political than it is technically difficult. There is a need to convert from gasoline and diesel fuel stations to hydrogen refueling and/or electric recharging stations.

Without easy and available access, drivers will be reluctant to purchase this new breed of automobile. And fighting the political influence of big oil to get these new kinds of refueling stations installed may be a political challenge.

Intelligent Energy claims that it is ready to market its first road-worthy hydrogen-powered motorcycle. The machine runs on a removable fuel cell, emits water as a by-product, and will be street legal. The biggest problem will be that the motorcycle will lack the power of the big gasoline-driven bikes. Its top speed, at least for now, is about fifty miles an hour.

This bike's frame is built around the fuel cell. The frame is constructed of hollow, aircraft-grade aluminum making it very light-weight. While it offers snail speed on the road, there is no internal combustion engine so the power is distributed evenly through a single gear. Thus for the rider there is no tricky clutching or shifting. The bike just goes, quietly, cleanly and smoothly.

DaimlerChrysler recently tested yet another version of a fuel cell vehicle . . . this one powered by methane gas . . . in a publicized trip across the United States. The vehicle performed well during the 12-day trip, although engineers had to make adjustments for mountain driving because of the low levels of oxygen in the air.

The methane powered engine was shown to be superior to petroleum because, like the hydrogen counterpart, its primary byproduct is water vapor. It also spews a few harmful pollutants although they are reportedly just a fraction of the stuff coming out of the tailpipes of conventional automobiles.

Also being tested for fuel cells are ethanol, natural gas and gasoline. None have reached a point where auto companies can expect to begin marketing cars or trucks that will be powered by fuel cells and alternative sources of energy.

The good news is that green energy technology is on the horizon and it appears possible that the petroleum powered motor vehicles may soon be on their way out. Taking all those carbon-spewing cars, trucks and buses off the road and replacing them with clean hydrogen fueled vehicles will go a long way toward cleaning the atmosphere and perhaps getting a grip on climate change before it is too late.