Generally when I speak of fuel cell vehicles on this hydrogen auto website, blog and message board I’m talking about PEM fuel cells than run using compressed hydrogen gas. But there are a variety of fuel cells on the market and in the research labs, most of which have nothing to do with the transportation industry.
For instance, solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) have long been used in the stationary power industry to create electricity and have not been used in vehicles because of their high operating temperatures. These operating temperatures can go as high as 1,500 degrees F.
Present day PEM fuel cells that are used in most prototype and low production lease autos today use hydrogen gas compressed between 3,600 psi and 10,000 psi. PEM fuel cells in autos run at an operating temperature of around 180 degrees F.
The at the University of Maryland think they have developed a new kind of SOFC that one day soon could be used in the transportation industry. And this SOFC has many advantages over present day PEM fuel cells.
The researchers have developed a SOFC that runs at 1,200 degrees F and believe that they can reduce the starting temperature to around 660 degrees F which would be acceptable to use in vehicles such as autos, trucks and buses.
The biggest advantage of these SOFC fuel cells is that they can run on a variety of fuel, not just hydrogen. Sure, hydrogen is the fuel of choice since zero emissions are involved. But, until an adequate hydrogen refueling infrastructure is put in place SOFC fuel cells can also run on gasoline, diesel, biofuels and natural gas, all with low emissions.
In fact, vehicles running with solid oxide fuel cells would be the ultimate flex fuel vehicles since they can run on such a wide variety of fuels. Consumers wouldn’t have “range anxiety” like they do in electric autos or in hydrogen autos that lack infrastructure.
In fact, consumers will have more choices of where to fuel up, what the prices are at any given point in time and at any geographical location. There are probably cell phone apps for this being developed right now.
The point is that SOFCs in vehicles could be the transitional technology we need to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels while an adequate hydrogen refueling infrastructure is being built. Consumer acceptance of fuel cells in autos would not be as big of a hurdle if that fuel cell was able to accept a wide variety of fuels that are already at most pumps nationwide. And as we’ve already seen with natural gas powered vehicles or electric autos, consumer acceptance is one of the top factors involved in the success or failure of any new technology.