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Fuel Cells in a Hydrocarbon Economy
It seems like there's a lot less hype these days about the inevitability and even the imminence of the so-called "hydrogen economy". More people apparently are coming to recognize the daunting challenges associated with producing, delivering and storing hydrogen in a manner that is both economically reasonable and environmentally beneficial. True, an energy infrastructure based on hydrogen separated from water by renewably-generated electricity is theoretically possible, but before such a vision will actually be implemented -- involving incalculable billions of dollars of new hydrogen-compatible infrastructure -- many performance and cost breakthroughs on many fronts across many steps of the value chain must be demonstrated convincingly to investors and customers alike. To say the least, this is not very likely, at least not anytime soon.

So, with the diminishing appeal of hydrogen, one might think that interest in fuel cells might be waning. Not so fast, my friend. A recent report from Fuel Cell Today shows that, at least in stationary application (if not for transportation purposes), the fuel cell market continues to show improving vital signs.

Fuel cell technologies that don't require hydrogen as a fuel are especially attracting attention. In the U.K., Ceres Power's approach enables the use of natural gas in fuel cells, which has piqued the interest of the major gas utility British Gas. Just here in Ohio alone, Ohio University is actively investigating fuel cells that operate on coal, and Technology Management Inc. has developed solid oxide fuel cell technology that has operated on biofuels. Other examples are far too numerous to list here, but you get the idea: fuel cells meshing with the current hydrocarbon infrastructure.

Admittedly, fuel cells that operate on hydrocarbons do produce some CO2 emissions. It's not the utopian world offered by the promise of the hydrogen economy. But, if fuel cells can operate cost-effectively on plentiful and reasonably-priced fuels, they can at least reduce (if not eliminate) greenhouse gas emissions relative to conventional utilization of those fuels, and (if used in applications to replace internal combustion engines) can reduce demand for petroleum of increasingly vulnerable and uncertain supply. Half a loaf is better than none.

If fuel cells can make the big time in our hydrocarbon economy, it can significantly improve our energy/environmental situation while paving the way for the bigger prize that would be enabled by the longer-term emergence of a true hydrogen economy -- if/as the other pieces of the hydrogen puzzle (production, distribution, storage) get solved.

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