Canadian Plastics

Fuel-cell future still on the horizon

By Michael LeGault, editor   

A few issues ago, I wrote an editorial arguing that the high price of oil was mainly a result of anxiety and speculation, rather than any impending oil shortage. One reader wrote, not to rake my logic...

A few issues ago, I wrote an editorial arguing that the high price of oil was mainly a result of anxiety and speculation, rather than any impending oil shortage. One reader wrote, not to rake my logic over the coals, but to question why I didn’t use my editorial pulpit instead to urge energy conservation, and promote green technology such as fuel cells.

Good causes, no doubt, and ones that I agree with in principle. At this point in my career — it has been my privilege to write this column for nine years — it might help to state my rationale in deciding to write about the market economics of oil, rather than the potential of fuel cells.

I have used this space over the years to make the case for Free Trade, better management practices at domestic automotive companies, the importance of entrepreneurs and risk-takers to our standard of living, and even the re-institution of the receptionist in the company front lobby. I have strived, and perhaps at times failed, to take reasoned stances for or against an issue, never to merely promote a cause. I have wanted, as much as possible, to use this editorial space to make large statements based on the facts and logic as I see them.

This brings me to green technology and fuel cells. I am not out to trash fuel cells; I think hydrogen-powered fuel cells are nifty and will definitely have many future applications. But when someone suggests that I write an opinion column about fuel cells, I have to ask myself a few questions. The first is, why? What is the issue? What am I arguing for, or against? The second is, of what interest are fuel cells to our readers?


As recently as 1999, executives from Ford, Daimler-Chrysler and fuel-cell manufacturer Ballard Power Systems, were predicting fuel-cell vehicles (FCVs) would be in dealer showrooms in 2004. Today, while there are about 500 experimental FCVs in use around the world, none are for sale.

A hydrogen fuel cell works by passing hydrogen through a catalytic membrane, separating the electrons from the protons. The electrons are sent through a circuit to produce electricity to run an electric motor, and the protons are combined with oxygen to make water — a fuel cell’s only emission. Thus, fuel cells need only hydrogen for fuel. Hydrogen can be produced from natural gas or oil, which sort of defeats the entire purpose. Hydrogen can also be obtained from water using non-polluting energy sources — such as solar panels — to split the hydrogen out from the oxygen, but this is a very energy-intensive, low-volume and costly process.

In addition to the hydrogen supply problem, engineers have discovered that FCVs are more complicated and finicky than they were led to believe six years ago. Fuel cells must be stacked in order to generate enough electricity, and an electronic control system must manage the flow of the electricity to the motors. Starting an FCV in freezing conditions is no easy trick. Lastly, the life of fuel cells may be only one-fifth as long as a gasoline powered engine, according to the journal of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.

According to the most optimistic estimate, it will be at least 10 years before these and other problems are solved and fuel-cell vehicles are available to the public. In the meantime, our readers will be still making products out of resins made from oil, and another large group of readers will be making those parts for cars powered by gasoline.

And with these words, it is time to say good bye. I have left the magazine, in very good hands, in order to write a book. I appreciate having had the chance to write for this magazine and to cover this industry.

Best to all, Mike.


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