Saturday, 18 July 2009

Fuel-Cell Power

Richard Hollingham reports from California on how technology that took man to the Moon could soon take shoppers regularly to the mall.

It looks like an ordinary SUV (Sports Utility Vehicle), the sort of chunky 4X4 you'll find jamming American roads.

It's only when you take a drive that you realise that this is something very different.

I'm no motoring correspondent but, as we pull out of the parking lot, it's difficult not to be impressed by this car's smooth acceleration.

What's even more disconcerting is that the vehicle is almost totally silent - the only noise comes from the wind buffeting the windows and the squeal of the tyres as we bomb down the freeway.

"The car drives with electricity but - unlike a battery-electric car that you need to plug in to charge - the fuel cell vehicle makes electricity on-board from the hydrogen stored in a tank," explained Catherine Dunwoody, executive director of the California Fuel Cell Partnership.

"The fuel cell is a fuel conversion device that converts hydrogen to electricity," she told the BBC World Service's One Planet programme.

The only byproduct is water - the ultimate 'zero-emission' vehicle.
Like a battery, a fuel cell uses a chemical process to generate electricity. Inside the fuel cell, a catalyst strips hydrogen into positively charged hydrogen ions and electrons. The positive ions pass across a special membrane and react with oxygen (from the air) to form water. The electrons have to take the long way round and flow through a circuit to generate electricity.

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