EXPLORATIONS -February 27, 2002: Fuel Cell Cars
By Mario Ritter
This is Mary Tillotson.
And this is Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program EXPLORATIONS. Today we tell about a new
American program to develop cars that do not cause pollution.
American Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham recently announced a new program to develop cars that effectively
use fuel and do not cause pollution. The new energy department program will support research to make a car
powered by a fuel cell engine. Mister Abraham calls the proposed vehicle the “Freedom Car.
The energy secretary made his announcement at the Detroit Auto Show in early January. He said the new
project is meant to bring about a change in government policy. Mister Abraham said “Freedom
stands for “Cooperative Automotive Research.
He said using hydrogen instead of gasoline as fuel for cars represents an important step toward reducing
America ’s use of foreign oil. Mister Abraham also said that the fuel cell project will combine government and
industrial investments to develop new technologies.
A fuel cell is not a new invention. It is a device which uses hydrogen fuel and oxygen from the air to produce
electricity and water. Sir William Grove of Britain invented the first fuel cell in Eighteen-Thirty-Nine. Many
different designs have been invented since then.
The Gemini and Apollo space ships used fuel cells to create electricity in space.
Fuel cells provide all the electrical power on the American space agency’s Space
Shuttle. The hydrogen used by the fuel cells combines with oxygen to provide all of
the drinking water for the astronauts.
This is the way a fuel cell uses hydrogen to create electricity. Hydrogen gas is
passed over a metal that reacts electrically. The electrons from the hydrogen
separate to form electricity. The remaining part of the hydrogen atom, the proton,
combines with oxygen to form water. This process makes electricity without producing the pollution that is
created when coal, oil and gasoline are burned as fuels.
Researchers say fuel cells lose less of the energy they produce than other methods of making electricity. They
also say that a large number of substances can be used to provide fuel for a fuel cell. Specially treated natural gas,
oil and coal all contain the hydrogen necessary to run a fuel cell.
Several companies in the United States, Germany and Canada are developing experimental fuel cells. Yet, most
of these devices are part of a large power station. In these power systems, a central fuel cell makes electricity
from hydrogen gas. Other machines separate hydrogen from natural gas, oil or coal. These fuel cell systems can
be very complex.
Hydrogen presents several major problems for those who want to use it to make energy or to power cars.
Hydrogen easily combines with other elements, or itself, to create molecules. Yet, it takes a lot of energy to
release a hydrogen atom from a molecule. For example, electrolysis is the process of separating a hydrogen atom
from an oxygen atom in a molecule of water. In this process, electrical current separates the two atoms, but adds
greatly to the cost of making hydrogen gas.
The Department of Energy lists several ways that hydrogen can be released from some materials. However,
research shows that hydrogen is difficult to separate from complex molecules. The agency estimates that
producing electricity from hydrogen would be about ten times more costly than burning natural gas.
Fuel cells also present major problems for engineers who design cars. A single fuel cell has to be large, yet can
create only a small amount of electrical power. So, fuel cells need to be combined in a series to produce a strong
electrical current. Researchers have been trying to reduce the size of fuel cells for many years.
Some scientists have used new materials to solve the problem. One fuel cell developed by Bell Laboratories is
very small. It uses specially processed materials to make a very thin fuel cell. However, these thin fuel cells
produce only a small amount of electricity. Experts believe that smaller fuel cells will some day provide power
for devices like cellular telephones and computers.
Fuel storage is another major problem in designing a car that is powered by a fuel cell. Fuel cell engines require a
large amount of hydrogen to create enough electricity to much too much space. Hydrogen in liquid form can exist
only at extremely low temperatures. A fuel tank in a car to hold liquid hydrogen would need to be very large to
keep the temperature inside it low.
The cost of a car with a fuel cell engine could also be a major problem. Peter Hoffman is head of The Hydrogen
and Fuel Cell Letter. Mister Hoffman supports developing cell energy technology. His estimates suggest that fuel
cell cars would cost at least seventy-five thousand dollars.
Experimental fuel cell cars do exist. The car manufacturer Daimler-Chrysler has developed a fuel cell engine
small enough to use in a car. The experimental car is called the Chrysler Natrium. Its fuel cell engine runs on a
chemical mixture called sodium borohydride. The fuel cell uses hydrogen in the fuel to make electricity.
However, a hydrogen fuel cell powered by the kind of chemical mixture presents new problems. The new fuel is
not commonly used today. And, the car would produce huge amounts of borax as waste defeating the purpose of
using a fuel cell engine that does not pollute.
The new “Freedom Car”
program is not the first time the American government has supported research to
produce cars that use fuel more effectively. In Nineteen-Ninety-Three, the Clinton administration began a
program to design cars that use less fuel. The goal was to develop a car that uses about three times less gasoline
than current cars.
The government spent about one-thousand-five -hundred million dollars to aid the research. Much of the research
money went to laboratories, universities and government agencies. The New York Times reports that the three
biggest car makers --Ford, General Motors and Chrysler --received only a small amount of the government
That program failed to produce any cars using less fuel that could be sold. It did develop several new materials
that are being used in cars today. Yet, American vehicles on average do not use fuel more effectively than they
did at the beginning of the program.
Energy Secretary Abraham’s announcement in Detroit, Michigan, of the Freedom Car program officially ended
that effort. In the proposed federal budget for Two-Thousand-Three, the Bush administration calls for spending
one-hundred-fifty million dollars this year on fuel cell research.
Two car companies have successfully developed cars that use regular gasoline far more effectively. The Japanese
car company Toyota makes what is called a hybrid car. The model called the Prius uses both electricity and gas to
run its engine. Toyota has sold more than twenty-thousand of these cars in the United States. In fact, every Prius
ever made has been sold. There is a list of people who want to buy the popular car.
The Japanese car-maker, Honda, also makes a hybrid car that uses gasoline so effectively that it almost meets the
goal set by the Clinton administration. The Honda Insight also uses a combination of a gasoline engine and
electricity created from the motion of the car itself. Both the Prius and the Insight produce much less waste as
well. Toyota says the Prius produces seventy -five percent less pollution than regular cars.
Cars powered by fuel cells would create less pollution than even hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius. However, fuel
cell cars will not appear in the market place for many years, until researchers develop new technologies to deal
with old problems.
This Special English program was written by Mario Ritter. It was directed by George Grow. Our studio engineer
was Wagner Roberts. This is Mary Tillotson.
And this is Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another EXPLORATIONS program on the Voice of
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