A clean and efficient way to run the world: The fuel cell, invented in 1839, has produced electricity for spacecraft and submarines, but little else - until now, says Anna Coyle

A NEW polymer developed in the US could boost the commercial development of fuel cells, a cheap, clean, flexible way of generating electricity that has failed to take off in the past because of high manufacturing costs.

According to Dr Paul Stonehart, president of the American company Stonehart Associates, a new polymer material developed by his company allows fuel cells to compete alongside coal, oil, gas and nuclear fission for widespread electricity generation.

'The material has opened up a big door; it allows us to say commercialisation (of fuel cells) is here now,' says Dr Stonehart.

The material developed by Stonehart, to be manufactured in the US by Du Pont, is a perfluorinated sulphonic acid polymer, and is the key component of a new type of fuel cell.

These cells are currently used in small-scale specialised applications, such as military vehicles and submarines, where the need for a compact, lightweight energy source outweighs cost considerations. Fuel cells have been used on American space missions since 1962, when Nasa adopted them for the Gemini programme.

Dr Stonehart believes that he can cut the current costs of polymer fuel cells by about 80 per cent by using the material developed by his company, which should make them economically attractive for all scales of commercial electricity generation.

Power outputs could range from a few kilowatts, enough for a small factory or an electric car, to the megawatt scale of power stations serving towns and even cities.

'The only question is whether the manufacturing technology is amenable to automation. The answer is yes,' says Dr Stonehart.

Fuel cells work like batteries, producing electricity directly from the electrochemical reaction of hydrogen with oxygen from the air. But unlike a battery, they do not have to be recharged or thrown away, as the hydrogen fuel is fed in continuously. Methanol or natural gas can also be used.

Because the fuel is not burnt in air there are no undesirable nitrogen oxides or sulphur dioxide emissions. The only by- products are water and heat, which can be harnessed usefully in, for example, combined heat and power schemes in which recovered heat provides additional energy, usually in the form of steam.

The commercial drive towards fuel-cell technology, in the US at least, is coming from environmental legislation. The state of California, for example, will require 2 per cent of all new vehicles to have zero emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides by 1998. That will increase to 5 per cent by the beginning of the next century. Polymer fuel cells have been seized upon by the vehicle industry as one possible means to that end.

The first prototype buses using polymer electrode fuel cells are now on the road in California. Dr Stonehart thinks that commercial electric vehicles will run on batteries recharged by fuel cells.

'The fuel cell is really a range extender,' he says. 'The battery is there to give overtaking and acceleration where you need a big spike, whereas the fuel cell is there to provide range.' He believes the fuel most likely to be adopted is methanol because it is a liquid.

Another plus is that waste heat from the fuel cell can be used to heat the bus. General Motors aims to have the first passenger cars using a polymer fuel cell run on methanol in operation in the US by 1997.

A major advantage of fuel cells is that they are modular and can be stacked together to provide enough electricity to power anything from homes or cars to multi-megawatt power plants.

In Tokyo an 11 MW fuel-cell system, currently the largest such power station in the world, supplies 4,000 homes with electricity. Modularity, however, makes them more suitable as smaller stand-alone generating units, typically used for hospitals, factories or blocks of flats.

Although fuel cells were invented in Britain by Sir William Grove at the Royal Institution in London in 1839, it is the US and Japan that now lead the field in their research and development. In the UK, however, ICI, Rolls- Royce, British Gas and the precious-metal supplier Johnson Matthey all have extensive fuel- cell development programmes, funded in part by the Department of Trade and Industry.

The efficiency of a fuel cell in converting fuel to useful energy can reach more than 80 per cent, so they produce less carbon dioxide per unit of electricity generated than conventional sources. Dr Stonehart believes that it is this, combined with a lack of other emissions, that will make fuel cells more attractive as environmental legislation continues to tighten over the next decade.

'We still don't know the impact of legislation. The relative costs will come down quickly when money has to be spent cleaning up emissions,' says Dr Stonehart.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
News
Robert De Niro has walked off the set of Edge of Darkness
news The Godfather Part II actor has an estimated wealth of over $200m
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Sport
Robbie Savage will not face a driving ban
football
Voices
voices
Life and Style
Nearly half of all young people in middle and high income countries were putting themselves at risk of tinnitus and, in extreme cases, irreversible hearing loss
health Nearly half of all young people in middle and high income countries are at risk of tinnitus
News
It was only when he left his post Tony Blair's director of communications that Alastair Campbell has published books
people The most notorious spin doctor in UK politics has reinvented himself
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in ‘I Am Michael’
filmJustin Kelly's latest film tells the story of a man who 'healed' his homosexuality and turned to God
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower