CHE 300

Environmental Science

Dr. J. A. Schneider
Dept. of Chemistry
SUNY Oswego
Oswego, NY 13126

Rm: 237 Snygg Hall
Tel: 315.312.2124
Environmental Investigations: Electrics and Hybrids and Fuel Cells, Oh My... by Jeffery A. Schneider, Ph.D.

Issues and Background

All the major automotive manufacturers have a fuel cell vehicle either in development or in testing right now - Honda, Toyota, DaimlerChrysler, GM, Ford, Hyundai, Volkswagen - you name it. They speculate that the fuel cell vehicle will not be commercialized until at least 2004.
Fuel Cells 2000

Alternative fuel vehicles (AFVs) can operate on fuels other than gasoline or diesel. Using alternative fuels helps reduce our nation's dependence on imported oil and improves air quality. Currently, automobile manufacturers offer light-duty vehicles (LDVs) capable of operating on compressed natural gas (CNG), propane (LPG), electricity, E85 (a blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline), and biodiesel.
U.S. Department of Energy's Clean Cities Vehicle Buyer's Guide

Earlier, I mentioned that I should probably be looking for a more environmentally friendly car or at least one that was more fuel-efficient. Any of a number of alternatives exists. I suppose if I didn't mind being able to carry no passengers and no luggage, I could get a solar-powered car, but there are more practical alternatives. One alternative is the hybrid gasoline-electric vehicle. The Prius from Toyota has been available around the world for several years and the Honda Insight has been available for just a little bit longer. Both of these cars are designed to seamlessly use electricity, gasoline or a combination of both without the driver ever having to worry about it and the mileage is amazing in the case of the Insight (rated by the EPA at 68 mpg). Another alternative is the fuel cell vehicle.

So what is a fuel cell? In principle, a fuel cell operates like a battery. Unlike a battery, a fuel cell does not run down or require recharging. It will produce energy in the form of electricity and heat as long as fuel is supplied. It consists of two electrodes sandwiched around an electrolyte. Oxygen passes over one electrode and hydrogen over the other, generating electricity, water and heat. Oxygen is easy to obtain from the air in the same way our cars obtain it now. Hydrogen on the other hand is the tough part. Different companies have different methods for obtaining the hydrogen. General Motors (GM) is working on reformers that draw hydrogen from low-sulfur gasoline. These systems could be used by gas stations to make hydrogen from gasoline, which could then be sold to the public. Other companies, such as DaimlerChrysler obtain the hydrogen from sodium borohydride, (made from boric acid and metallic sodium), in essence a source of hydrogen in a solid form.

But before we all jump on the fuel cell bandwagon, we need to realize that there are some problems associated with this technology. Most of us tend to forget about the infrastructure required to implement these ideas. With the DaimlerChrysler technology we'd have to somehow get hydrogen to everyone and have sites set up where we could recharge the used sodium borohydride. Do we have the ability to distribute hydrogen and/or collect used sodium borohydride? How much would it cost to develop such an infrastructure and who's going to pay for it? At least with the GM technology we wouldn't need a whole new chain of hydrogen stations to refuel our cars, but we would have to wait for GM to refine the technology, test it, distribute it, and install the systems in a suitable number of "gas" stations across the country. Even then, we'd still get the hydrogen from gasoline, so we'd still be dependent on oil; the only difference is that we wouldn't be polluting the atmosphere by burning it. So I guess it's a start, but maybe in the meantime I'll just start riding my bike more.

Ask Yourself These Questions
  1. As when any new technology first becomes available to the general public, alternatively powered vehicles will undoubtedly be a bit costly. Do you think the public would "buy into" this new technology? Would you buy one?
  2. Do you know anyone who owns an alternatively powered vehicle? If you do, ask them about it. What kind of mileage do they get? Is it expensive to maintain?
  3. Do you think it is a good idea to be developing alternative fuels to gasoline or should we be more worried about developing better ways to more efficiently use the gasoline we have?
  4. Let's say that fuel cell powered vehicles become commercially available. Research the current methods for supplying hydrogen and develop a distribution system. Do you think government incentives should be used to implement your idea? Or should we leave it to the private sector?
Different Perspectives in the Debate

  • Fuel Cells 2000
    This site lives up to its billing as the "Online Fuel Cells Information Center" by offering a plethora of information about fuel cells. It is an eye opening site.
  • Hybrid Electric Vehicle Program - U.S. Department of Energy
    The United States Department of Energy's site describes their Hybrid Electric Vehicle Program including a section on tax deductions for buying a hybrid electric vehicle.
  • Clean Cities Vehicle Buyer's Guide - U.S. Department of Energy
    This is a Buyer's Guide for Hybrid Vehicles setup by the United States Department of Energy.
  • Corolland
    This is a website dedicated to Toyota cars, maintained by users for users. The page listed here is devoted to Toyota's hybrid vehicle - Prius.
  • Insightman
    Ed Begley from Ann Arbor, Michigan, better known as Insightman is an owner of a Honda Insight and has developed this website to showcase Honda's low emission vehicles.
  • Car and Driver - Look, Ma, No Gas! cell&page=1
    This Car and Driver feature article reports on DaimlerChrysler's Natrium, a fuel cell powered car that derives it's required hydrogen from borax. Included at the end of the article is another article about General Motors' competing fuel cell technology.
    This is a very interesting site with lots of practical information about hybrid cars, how they work, and where to buy them.
  • The Environmental Literacy Council - Is There a Hybrid Car in Your Future?
    The Environmental Literacy Council is dedicated to helping citizens, especially young people, participate wisely in the environmental decision making process. This article helps us understand the basics of hybrid cars and all of the impacts that are associated with them.
  • Is A Hybrid Car Good for Your Wallet?
    This article from Lucy Lazarony at asks us a tough question. In it, she takes us through some number crunching to see if hybrid cars make economic sense. Check it out.

All material (except for some code and external links) © Jeffery A. Schneider, 2003