George Bush and big business are backing fuel cells as the pollution-free way to provide power. But, Geoff Watts finds, not everyone is reassured by their enthusiasm.
Wind power may be all the rage in the UK - but, in the long term, the smart money is still on fuel cells: the technology with something for everyone. Governments like them because they offer extra energy options and a way to escape dependence on fuel supplies from politically unstable areas. Environmental groups back them because they're clean. And citizens - it is assumed - will be equally keen because they offer the prospect of pollution-free, reliable energy sources. But scratch the surface of this all-things-to-all-people veneer and you find a confusing welter of doubts, paradoxes, mixed motives, drawbacks and downright cynicism.
Coal and steam power shaped the 19th century; oil and the internal combustion engine the 20th. The proponents of fuel-cell technology believe that their time has come. "We find ourselves at the dawn of a new epoch in history. Hydrogen, the very stuff of the stars and of our own sun, is now being seized by human ingenuity."
This encomium for the fuel cell was delivered last month by Jeremy Rifkin, veteran environmental activist and president of the Washington-based Foundation for Economic Trends. Rifkin, an adviser to European Commission president Romano Prodi, was giving the keynote address at a European Union conference on hydrogen as the fuel of the future at which the commission was to unveil its vision for energy technology.
Rifkin's prose is stirring, but history teaches that such declarations need to be taken with a pinch of salt. When Calder Hall, Britain's first nuclear reactor, came on stream, didn't someone say something about power becoming so cheap that it wouldn't be worth metering?
The fuel cell is not a new idea - the English physicist William Grove invented it in the mid-19th century. It grew out of a familiar process, the electrolysis of water. Passing a current through water splits it into the elements from which it is made: hydrogen and oxygen. Grove wondered if it might be possible to put the process into reverse; to combine oxygen and hydrogen to generate electricity. It was. A fuel cell achieves this feat without combustion, which makes it an efficient energy source. And the only product of the reaction, apart from electricity, is water.
The advent of the internal combustion engine eclipsed interest in fuel cells. The idea gathered dust until the 1960s, when the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration needed a new power source for spacecraft, sparking fresh interest in the technology. The first fuel cell-driven vehicle took to the road in 1993, and many public buildings now use them. More technical advances have made it possible to construct fuel cells that work on other hydrogen-containing materials such as methanol.
The most recent boost to the technology came at the Brussels conference, when the US and the EU signed a cooperation agreement. It is intended to improve the performance and durability of fuel cells and to reduce their cost. European research commissioner Philippe Busquin called the deal "a landmark in energy research history". But not everyone is so bullish.
Gary Acres, a visiting professor at the University of Birmingham and consultant to chemicals group Johnson-Matthey, points out that the deal is mainly about research. "The strength of the UK and one or two other EU member states is in the technology, but not in exploiting it," he says. He worries that Europe might come up with good ideas only to see the US reap the commercial benefits. When people decide to buy, say, fuel cell-powered buses - the Greater London Authority is interested - the only manufacturers may be non-British or even non-European.
Some know-how has already been exported under licence to the US, because the necessary funding has proved elusive in the UK. "We ought to be looking for collaborative programmes involving the development, demonstration and manufacturing of complete systems," Acres says.
But reservations about fuel cells run deeper than this particular agreement. The technology itself is clean. But generating the hydrogen required can create emissions. The EU sees the transition to the new technology as going hand in hand with a move towards renewable energy sources, and away from fossil fuels. The US, on the other hand, wants a hydrogen economy with an eye to exploiting its large coal reserves.
Although hydrogen can, in theory, be extracted from coal without releasing greenhouse gases, in the short term this seems unlikely.
Environmental organisations fear that enthusiasm for fuel cells is likely to divert attention from energy conservation and the development of renewable sources.
The mixed motives of most of the big players don't help. The US has a powerful environmental lobby: witness California's Zero Emission Vehicle Program, which compelled car manufacturers to test and sell vehicles that produce no significant emissions. The Bush administration has responded by advocating a hydrogen-fuel economy. But many observers doubt that care for the environment has much to do with it.
The real driver, according to John Irvine, professor of inorganic chemistry at St Andrews University, is fuel security, not global warming. He fears that if the US opts for a hydrogen economy, it might produce more carbon dioxide, not less. "In California they are worried about squandering fuel," he says. "But a lot of the country isn't bothered. They think they've got a huge country with lots of trees." And what of their international image since Bush withdrew from the Kyoto treaty on climate change? Doesn't that concern them? Irvine laughs. "I don't think they're greatly worried about their image," he says. "I wish they were more concerned about it."
So is the enthusiasm for fuel cells just a cynical diversionary tactic to dodge the issue of the US's environmentally damaging reliance on the car, a smokescreen to disguise the country's reluctance to do anything now about its emissions? Nigel Brandon, a lecturer in environmental and mining engineering at Imperial College London and visiting professor at the University of Connecticut's fuel-cell centre, admits he would have taken such a view two or three years ago. But, as with so much else, 9/11 has changed things. "Now I think their desire [for fuel-cell technology] is real," he says. "But it's not driven by environmental considerations. It's driven by strategic need. Of course, the fact that the technology happens to have environmental benefits is also useful," he adds.
Brandon is still critical of the car industry, which, he suspects, has cynically seized on the new technology as a useful diversion. "Their fuel-cell research deflects political pressure away from targets that would cost a lot more money. And if you look at the vehicles the Americans are thinking of putting fuel cells in, they tend to be huge SUVs." As a contribution to emission control, reducing the fuel consumption of these gas guzzlers - instead of asking why city-dwellers insist on owning them - is hardly going to change the world.
That said, the US really is investing in a big way. When you add up American spending on carbon dioxide reduction, says Acres, it is way in front of Europe. "America is investing more in technology that could reduce carbon dioxide emissions than anyone else, even though carbon dioxide reduction isn't the motive," he notes.
Meanwhile, the future of the technology itself is far from certain. There are technical hurdles to be overcome. Brandon says that it is critical to solve problems surrounding the storage of hydrogen if fuel cells are to be made small enough to fit into private cars. But like most of those in the fuel-cell research community, he believes they will play an important part in the energy mix of the 21st century.
John Kilner, professor of materials science at Imperial, agrees but warns that it is an expensive and difficult business. "We've demonstrated that fuel cells work and can achieve the durability needed for a sensible service life," he says. "But at a huge cost." Irvine reckons that the price needs to fall by a factor of ten before the technology can be truly competitive.
For anyone monitoring developments of fuel cells, there is no shortage of straws in the wind. Earlier this month, electronics giant NEC demonstrated a prototype personal computer that runs off a fuel cell. Less than a week later Federal Express in Tokyo became the first company to commercially use a fuel cell-powered delivery vehicle.
"At the moment, there's an increasing head of steam behind fuel cells, with politicians such as Prodi and Bush taking an interest," Acres says. "But is this just another wave of interest that'll be gone in five years? Or, this time, is it something bigger?"