From Diana J. Choyce
Jan 24 - 30, 2000

Methanol fuel cells

In our continuing search for alternative energy resources, research has branched into many areas. The newest of these is an efficient, lightweight fuel cell that runs on methanol. In the near future these cells could run your computer or mobile phone. Later on, it is hoped that they may fuel electric cars. If these cells can be made to work they will have a major impact on our quest for energy with conservation. A fuel cell basically operates as a self-chargeable battery. It converts hydrogen and oxygen into electricity without the conventional combustion process. The hydrogen and oxygen feed into stacks of plates that create electricity with simple water vapor as the byproduct. This makes it a silent, renewable and zero emission device. And thus could make it the perfect energy source for the millennium. The US NASA program has actually been using these devices for some time now. And with private commercial research taking on the task, they could be available to the consumer in the very near future.

Fuel cells can use many different sources of hydrogen including tanks of simple compressed gas. But with methanol, a liquid normally produced from natural gas, the cell has a more efficient way to store the hydrogen. For fueling cars, an indirect cell is used that allows a device known as a "reformer" to extract the hydrogen. For smaller appliances a more direct method, using different, lighter plates will eliminate the need for the reformer. Therefore the cells will be lighter and adaptable to many everyday devices. "You could put them into consumer electronic products," says Todd Marsh, president and CEO of Los Angeles-based DTI Energy, a small technology company. A lap-top computer, for instance, could work much longer on a tiny fuel cell than on rechargeable batteries. "Then, rather than waiting for the thing to recharge, you could simply slip in another ampoule of methanol," says Marsh. Marsh is licensing the patent for a direct-methanol fuel cell developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Ballard Power Systems Inc., based in British Columbia, is already producing fuel cells for buses and small stationary steam plants. The DaimlerChrysler and Ford car makers are working with Ballard and hope to introduce fuel-cell cars into showrooms by 2004. And Daimler, as well as many other auto and oil companies have started their own research into the direct methanol fuel cells. In March of last year DaimlerChrysler introduced a zero emission fuel-cell vehicle that is on display in Washington D.C. The car can reach a top speed of 90 miles per hour, can travel nearly 280 miles on a fill up and can carry up to five passengers. The NECAR4 is based on a Mercedes-Benz compact design. The fuel cell and tank in the first model, took up the whole cargo area of a Mercedes van. The newest version carries the cell engine only in the engine compartment. These new cells are also far more powerful than the first models. "NECAR 4 is a major breakthrough in fuel cell technology because we've developed a very powerful fuel cell system small enough to be packaged in a compact car, " said Dr. Ferdinand Panik, head of DaimlerChrysler's Fuel Cell Project. This version is powered by liquid hydrogen which has to be kept cold. This makes it a rather impractical fuel source. Panik expects to introduce a new version of NECAR

which runs on methanol this year. The company intends to invest more than $1 billion dollars to produce these cars. On a side note, a group of 15 scientists and engineers were honored by the White House last year, for their development of a fuel processor that produces hydrogen from commonly available fuels such as methanol, ethanol, natural gas and gasoline. This means a fuel cell vehicle equipped with their fuel processor onboard, could fill up at any conventional service station.

The Fuel Cells 2000 website is reporting many breakthroughs, test projects, and partnerships in this ongoing research. The California Fuel Cell Partnership has announced plans to construct a headquarters office in West Sacramento to house fuel cell electric vehicles and a hydrogen refueling station. The 55,000 square-feet facility is expected to open in the fall of 2000. Up to 16 test cars will be provided by partnership members DaimlerChrysler, Ford, Honda and Volkswagen. The Westminster City Council in London has purchased a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle that will be used as a maintenance van in Westminster's 123 parks, gardens and open spaces. The vehicle is powered by a Zevco 5 kW alkaline fuel cell which accelerates to 50 km/h in 15 seconds and carries a maximum of three people. General Motors is donating fifteen new 2000 model year Chevrolet Suburbans to various colleges and universities around the country participating in the FutureTruck 2000 competition. The engineering students will convert these vehicles from gasoline power to alternative propulsion systems in the search for new approaches to more fuel efficient and environmentally friendly systems for light trucks. Toshiba Corp. is developing a prototype fuel cell system that extracts hydrogen from gasoline. Toshiba is working with United Technologies Corp. and plans to supply the new systems to automakers in Japan. Manhattan Scientifics was announced as a winner of IndustryWeek's seventh annual Technology and Innovations Awards Program for its patented Micro-Fuel Cell device. The Micro-Fuel Cell converts methanol to electricity and is small enough to power portable electronics such as cellular phones.

Renewable and emissions- free energy sources are desperately needed if we are to make any headway in conserving our planets resources. And this new research deserves all the attention and investments that it can garner. It is especially heartening to see research monies used for long term solutions that will benefit all mankind. Our denial of the limited resources this planet has to offer has gone on long enough.