Right now, the United States imports 55 percent of the oil it consumes. In fact, while we represent only 4.6 percent of the world's population, we consume 25 percent of the world's oil production. This reliance on foreign oil is dangerous for both the economy and security of the United States. Furthermore, the world's reliance on fossil fuels is bad for our environment and our future. Fuel cells are foremost among possible solutions to the worsening energy crisis. During former President George Bush's State of the Union Address, he announced the Hydrogen Fuel Initiative (HFI). This initiative dedicated over a billion dollars to fuel cell research. Which leads us to a pertinent question: what are fuel cells?
Fuel cells are not new; a Welshman, Sir Robert Groves, invented them over a century ago. Scientists had successfully used electrical current to separate water into its elemental components - hydrogen and oxygen. This process is called electrolysis. Groves theorized that in reversing the electrolysis process, the products would be, water and electricity. He published his work in February 1939 and then constructed his first Gas Voltaic Battery. In principle, the gas voltaic battery is similar to most batteries. Batteries operate on two electrodes separated by an electrolyte membrane. Through chemical reaction, this causes ions to flow though in one way, and electrons to flow the other -resulting in an electrical flow. The difference is, fuel cells, unlike batteries are an open system capable of being replenished.
Currently, there are hosts of new technologies vying to be adopted into mainstream fuel cells. Most are classified by their operating temperature and the type of electrolyte they use. In Solid Oxide Fuel Cell (SOFC), the electrolyte is usually made from zirconia, and they operate at an extremely high temperature (between 700 and 1,000 degrees Celsius). Because of their temperature demands, SOFCs are best suited for industrial use. On the other end of the scale are Solid Proton (or Polymer) Exchange Membrane Fuel Cells (SPEMFC). SPEMFCs are much smaller than SOFCs and generally operate at temperatures that are more reasonable. SPEMFCs are generally touted as the future of the automotive industry. Mercedes and Boeing are already using this technology in projects.
There is a hand-full of Fuel cell cars on the roads today, but they are impractical for most. You can lease Honda's FCX for a scant $600 a month. And, even if you have the means, the wait list is long. One can only imagine the car insurance benefits. There are a plethora of Fuel Cell vehicles arriving to the U.S. market next year, including models from General Motors, Ford, Toyota, and Mercedes Benz. The future of fuel cell vehicles is expanding every day.