End of giant electricity generators is foreseen by the discovery of new polymer fuel cells
electricity generators and car makers, beware! Only gas suppliers can breath easy (New Scientist , Vol 152, No 2051). According to Amory Lovins, the visionary director of the Colorado (us)-based Rocky Mountain Institute, in the near future one can expect cars with a mileage of 85 km per litre which may double up as super-efficient miniature power stations when not on the move, feeding the national grid and putting big power stations out of business. This would be possible as new polymer fuel cells based on solid-state proton exchange membranes are on the verge of mass production. Early next century they will be used in powering trains, buses, cars, boats and maybe, homes.
Polymer fuel cells operate at a thermal efficiency of 60 per cent, compared to the 50 per cent efficiency of modern combined cycle gas turbine generator.a Two kg of today's most advanced batteries discharge a kilowatt (kw) of power in three minutes in battery-powered vehicles, whereas the same weight of fuel cells and methanol water fuel can generate a kw in five hours. Internal combustion engines also seem to be a casualty now. Fuel cells are four times more efficient than these engines. A fuel cell driving an electric motor converts fuel into traction twice more efficiently compared to a petrol or diesel engine on full power.
Lovins believes fuel cell-powered conventional cars, or 'hyper cars', will be in the market before the year 2000. When the cars are parked, fuel cells can feed electricity into the grid. In the us where power companies buy daytime electricity at five cents per kw-hour, Lovins estimates that by this an individual could earn about us $2,000 per year. He adds that if all 150 million private vehicles in the us would run on fuel cells, they can multiply the country's power generating capacity six-fold. This additional generating capacity could transform the energy markets and provide power at less than half the price. One can then also instal fuel cells in homes as domestic heat-and-power stations.
The present cost of about us $2,000 per kw for producing 10-20 kw of energy to drive a hyper car is high. But once mass production starts for the motor industry, prices could drop rapidly to just a few hundred dollars per kw.
One of the beneficiaries of this technology will be the environment, since emission of noxious pollutants will be completely eliminated. Also, for all those whose lives are surrounded by the din of traffic, fuel cells are wonderfully quiet.
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