Fuel cells are considered to be the ultimate method for producing energy for stationary and mobile sources (from cell phones to celectricity generation and automobiles). However, we are bluntly reminded today that not all fuel cells solve the practical energy generation problems that we face today. PEM fuel cells were a big thing a few years ago, but now it seems their end may have arrived. Unfortunate for all the researchers in that field, it has finally been concluded by one of its eminent supporters that for all practical purposes the fuel required by PEM fuel cells is simply not going to be available in any reasonable amount of time (or cost). Basically, PEM fuel cells require synthetic hydrogen as, whichis obviously not available in nature. Their competitors, such as solid oxide fuel cells, on the other hand can use hydrogen that has been reformulated from naturally available fuels such as gasoline, LPG or CNG.
A hugely important announcement was made recently by Ulf Bossel at the Lucerne Fuel Cell Forum, which is a very highly respected technical fuel cell conference. The announcement is given below. Here is a key statement from it: Physics cannot be replaced by wishful thinking, or changed by presidential initiatives, research programs and venture capital.
Lucerne Fuel Cell Forum
2-6 July 2007, Lucerne / Switzerland
Fuel cells are energy converters, not energy sources. They will be part of a sustainable energy solution only if they can compete with other conversion technologies. This includes system parameters, fuels and applications. Time has come for a critical assessment.
We need fuel cells for available fuels, not synthetic fuels for new fuel cells. Natural gas and oil-derived liquid hydrocarbons will be around for many years. However, their use will be restricted by costs, environmental concerns or even political reasons. Sustainable hydrocarbons like bio-methane, bio-ethanol and bio-methanol from organic waste, wood or farming are already replacing fuels of fossil origin. Hydrocarbon fuels will be important forever and so will fuel cells capable of directly converting these fuels into electricity.
The impressive performance of phosphoric acid, molten carbonate and solid oxide fuel cells clearly indicates that these fuel cell families can meet the challenges of a sustainable future. Some of these fuel cells have reached 65,000 hours of operation with the first stack and natural gas or bio-methane.
It is highly uncertain that synthetic hydrogen can ever be established as a universal energy carries. Electricity from renewable sources will be the source energy in a sustainably organized future. The direct distribution of electricity to the consumer is three to four times more efficient than its conversion to hydrogen by electrolysis of water, packaging and transport of synthetic energy carrier to the consumer and its conversion back to electricity with efficient fuel cells. By laws of physics, hydrogen economy can never compete with an “electron economy”.
But the laws of physics cannot be changed with further research, investments or political decisions. A sustainable future energy harvested from renewable sources (nuclear energy is not sustainable!) must be distributed and used with the highest efficiency. A wasteful hydrogen economy does not meet the criteria of sustainability. As a result, a viable free-market hydrogen infrastructure will never be established and fuel cells for hydrogen may not be needed. For all applications electricity from hydrogen fuel cells have to compete with the source electricity used to make hydrogen.
The European Fuel Cell Forum is committed to the establishment of a safe energy future. Therefore, it will continue to promote fuel cells for sustainable fuels, but discontinue supporting the development of fuel cells for hypothetical fuel supplies. Time has come for decisions. Keeping all options open is not an adequate response to mounting energy problems.
Therefore, the schedule of the European SOFC Forum will be continued in 2008 with an extended conference every second year. Beginning 2007 (July 2 to 6) sustainable energy topics will be emphasized in odd years. Despite earlier announcements the European PEFC Forum series will not be continued.
I would like to thank all who have contributed to establish the European PEFC Forum. You and your colleagues have developed a magnificent technology, but the fuel needed to make it work is not offered by nature. We cannot solve the energy problem by wasting energy. The laws of physics speak against a hydrogen economy. Physics cannot be replaced by wishful thinking, or changed by presidential initiatives, research programs and venture capital.
Solutions must be implemented soon as long as resources are available for this most challenging task. I sincerely hope that this announcement will be accepted as a constructive contribution to the ongoing energy debate.
Ulf Bossel, Ph.D.