FACT SHEET ON FUEL CELLS
October 22, 1997
THE BREAKTHROUGH: A gasoline-powered technology that would allow you to double the fuel efficiency of a car and emit half the greenhouse gases and virtually no other air pollution. For the first time, gasoline was used to produce electricity from a pollution-free fuel cell, allowing the use of the existing gasoline infrastructure. Previously, fuel cells have been powered by hydrogen or methanol, which are less convenient for use in cars.
The Department of Energy, together with Los Alamos National Laboratory, and A.D. Little, have developed a breakthrough fuel processor, which can extract hydrogen from gasoline and other fuels such as ethanol and natural gas. Last week, this fuel processor was combined with a fuel cell from Plug Power to demonstrate for the first time that a fuel cell electric car could be fueled by gasoline or ethanol. This eliminates the limited driving range and lengthy recharging times associated with electric cars that run on batteries.
WHAT IS A FUEL CELL: The fuel cell converts the chemical energy of a fuel directly into usable electricity and heat without combustion. Fuel cells are similar to batteries in that both produce a direct current by means of an electrochemical process, but fuel cells can operate indefinitely as long as fuel is supplied to them. Fuel cells can provide power for cars and other applications, such as electricity and hot water for buildings.
The Department of Energy working with its partners has brought down the cost of proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells by a factor of twenty in the last ten years. Continued R&D, coupled with the economies of scale from mass production of fuel cells as they enter the marketplace, should allow us to maintain this pace of cost reduction for another decade.
PARTNERSHIP FOR A NEW GENERATION OF VEHICLES (PNGV): The fuel cell breakthrough was accomplished as part of President Clinton's PNGV initiative, an innovative partnership between the government, the national laboratories, the big three automakers, and their suppliers. PNGV's goal is to develop a family-sized vehicle with triple the fuel efficiency of today's cars, without compromising cost or convenience.
POTENTIAL GREENHOUSE GAS REDUCTIONS: One-third of the nation's carbon dioxide emissions comes from the transportation sector, primarily cars. Fuel cell technology alone can directly double fuel efficiency and cut carbon dioxide emissions in half. In combination with other PNGV advances, such as lightweight materials and regenerative breaking, fuel cells will allow a tripling of fuel efficiency and a further reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Powering the fuel cell with renewable fuels, such as ethanol, could eliminate automotive greenhouse gas emissions entirely in the long run. The buildings sector also generates one-third of the nation's emissions of carbon dioxide. A building that uses the electricity and hot water from a fuel cell fueled by natural gas would have about half of the greenhouse gas emissions of the average building today. Plug Power expects to introduce fuel cells for homes and other buildings in 2000 that will provide electricity for less than the current residential rate. By 2010, fuel cells in buildings could be providing emissions savings of five million metric tons of carbon.