Fuel cells big and small in the news

Glaskowsky surveys recent news stories about hydrogen fuel cells, including how BMW and Ford are using them.

Tech Culture

A big fuel cell from UTC Power was in the news here in Silicon Valley this week when Fujitsu installed it as a backup power source for its local campus. CNET's Michael Kanellos wrote a good story about the event here, and took pictures ("Photos: Fujitsu unveils king-size fuel cell").

Although the fuel cell itself runs on hydrogen, there's no convenient source of pure hydrogen in Silicon Valley, so UTC Power also provided a steam methane reformer that yields hydrogen from natural gas.

One place where pure hydrogen is readily available is NASA's Cape Canaveral facility, and BMW recently completed an eight-week test of its Hydrogen 7 prototype vehicle there. (See the Edmunds review of the car, and a story of the test, with a great photo of the car posed in front of the Endeavour before the recent launch.)

BMW has now handed the keys to one of these cars to actor Will Ferrell (BMW press release), though I suspect BMW will learn less from Ferrell than it did from the NASA testers.

Interestingly, however, the Hydrogen 7 is not a fuel cell car, in spite of stories like this one. BMW just uses its big 6-liter V12 engine with minor modifications allowing it to run on hydrogen as well as gasoline. This is may be the most practical way to run a car on hydrogen, but it's not the wave of the future.

Ford has made a true fuel-cell car, the Fusion 999, and it's considerably faster than the Hydrogen 7. In fact, Ford's unique vehicle, derived from its production Fusion sedan, recently set a speed record for fuel-cell vehicles, reaching 207.297 mph on the Bonneville salt flats. This isn't a car you'll be seeing on the road anytime soon; it has a 770-horsepower electric motor and several huge pressure tanks, it weighs 6,700 pounds, and its range is only just good enough for the high-speed runs on the salt. Richard S. Chang blogged about the event for The New York Times and there's also an interesting video on the Popular Mechanics site.

Ford worked with Ohio State University on the Fusion 999 and on OSU's scratch-built Buckeye Bullet 2, a fuel-cell streamliner that may be able to exceed 350 mph. There's a blog for that project, and it's fascinating reading if you like cars and high technology.

But when can we regular folks have fuel cells of our own? Other than expensive and clumsy solutions like the Trulite and Medis products I blogged about last month (somewhat disparagingly), it won't be soon.

EE Times recently reported that Toshiba, for example, expects it will take several years to bring practical fuel cells to market. "Practical," in this case, means fuel cells based on DMFC (direct methanol fuel cell) technology, which can be powered by inexpensive methanol (also known as wood alcohol).

Samsung has demonstrated a version of its Q35 ultraportable notebook running on a DMFC power supply, achieving 240 hours of operation over the course of a month, but don't get too excited-- the supply is fairly bulky (see some photos and a video on AVING.net) and I'm not entirely convinced that the full month's worth of fuel is stored internally.

It's no coincidence that Samsung chose the Q35 for the demonstration; even the best DMFC fuel cells have much lower power density (watts of output power per cubic inch) than lithium batteries, so they'll have to be very large to support high-performance notebooks.

I'm sure DMFC technology will reach the consumer market soon enough, and then we'll see how it compares with batteries. I suspect lithium batteries will remain the most popular solution for laptops, and I'm sure handheld electronics will stick with batteries unless there's some breakthrough in fuel cells. But it'll be good to have another choice in portable power supplies.

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