Thursday, January 31, 2013

Fuel Cell Technology Advances Even Further!

The 2012 Honda FCX. Image Courtesy of Honda.

Anyone who has enough common sense can see that running cars on fossil fuels is a practice that needs to be phased out. The big debate that's raging in the automotive industry right now is what's the best way to wean us off our use of fossil fuels. There are people who tout biodiesel as a great alternative, mostly because the tech is pretty well-developed and could be implemented quickly. A growing faction of the auto industry is putting their weight behind electric cars, especially with the recent success of the Tesla Model S.

For years and years many of the largest automakers in the world have been trying to crack what they consider the holy grail in alternative fuels: hydrogen fuel cells. These automakers feel that fuel cell technology is the future. Fuel cell cars drive more like internal combustion models. Gas stations can be outfitted to deliver hydrogen (this one is debatable, say many electric car proponents). The best part of hydrogen fuel cells is tailpipe emissions are only a small amount of water.

There have been big problems with developing the technology. Fuel cell vehicles have been pretty slow (although Honda's FCX was the first to solve that problem). Many have wondered how the hydrogen will be stored and transported.

Mercedes has recently tackled one of the big problems: size. Hydrogen fuel cells, like lithium ion batteries, take up quite a bit of space. Quite a while ago GM was playing around with fuel cell "skateboards" where the cells were built into the car's chassis, making it thick and heavy. Mercedes has developed a fuel cell engine that is the same size as an internal combustion engine, meaning fuel cell vehicles don't have to contain a huge array along the entire chassis. Just this week Mercedes announced it is teaming up with Nissan-Renault and Ford to mass produce fuel cell vehicles and begin pushing for most hydrogen fueling infrastructure.

The new and more compact Mercedes fuel cell engine. Image courtesy of Daimler.
What does this mean for the future of the automobile? Only time will tell for sure, but a development like this could put fuel cell vehicles in the hands of millions of drivers across the globe, significantly dropping the demand for oil. I'm sure this isn't the last of this story, so look for more developments in the future.