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No longer locked in the backroom of great ideas, a new technology is getting ready to break out and radically alter how cars will be powered and gasoline sold.
Fuel cells, the 21st century "clean battery" that generates electricity without combustion or pollution, have gathered steam from auto makers, Big Oil and the federal government, evolving from a fantastic pipe dream to a realistic alternative fuel solution that could eventually do away with traditional octanes marketed at service stations across America.
"It's no longer a question of if it's going to happen. It's only a question of when," said petroleum economist Phil Verleger. "In 15 years alternative-powered vehicles could be viable, but it's going to be complicated and an expensive introduction."
Honda and Toyota plan to unveil limited rollouts next year of hybrid vehicles that run on fuel cells. Experts in the petroleum and auto manufacturing industries are spending millions of dollars to develop this hydrogen-based product they say will transform transportation and basic utilities.
"In the next five to 10 years fuel-cell vehicles will have a serious impact on the world," said Kim Bergland, outreach director of Irvine, Calif.-based National Fuel Cell Research Center. "Fuel-cell technology does not propose an imminent threat to the livelihoods of petroleum marketers. In fact, it will bring them new opportunities."
Officials representing jobbers and c-stores are tracking the progress of fuel cell development. Although on the radar screen, fuel cells still remain a distant blip, not likely to immediately spark large-scale outlays from rank-and-file operators.
True, the Bush administration has publicly shifted support from developing higher-mileage cars in the short run in favor of alternative, environmentally friendly fuels. And major oil companies such as Exxon Mobil Corp. and leading auto manufacturers are excitedly backing fuel-cell technology for its "green" promises.
Despite the hype and fancy demonstrations at car shows, critical roadblocks akin to those that essentially doomed the electric car may impede a mass-scale rollout.
One obvious issue is cost. Experts say converting the existing infrastructure, most notably gas stations, to handle hydrogen cars would run $70,000 or more per station. Cost also is hampering the replacement of internal combustion engines with electrochemical combustion.
First developed through the U.S. space program to provide power for satellites, fuel cells run on hydrogen, producing electricity through a process that combines hydrogen with oxygen from the air. The catalyst generating the hydrogen can come from different sources, including traditional fossil fuels like natural gas.
What especially excites industrialists and environmentalists is that fuel cells do no harm to the environment. Instead of belching pollutants into the air, fuel cells emit water vapors. And that's it. And unlike their electric-car counterparts, these vehicles don't have to pull off the side of the road during an excursion for recharging.
"Right now a gallon of gas only gets 15 to 20 percent efficiency. The rest is heat dissipated into the atmosphere," Bergland said. "Fuel cells are 35 to 40 percent efficient so you get double the mileage. Even if you use gas [as the catalyst], it's still 30 percent or so. It's still a much more efficient process, so you would need less fuel to do the same amount of work."
In the heart of industrial New Jersey, ExxonMobil personnel are working to perfect a critical component called a fuel reformer, the tool that converts hydrocarbon fuels into hydrogen.
While researchers elsewhere home in on hydrogen-based sources other than gasoline, ExxonMobil and other energy companies have assumed the position that oil remain not only viable, but a critical component in any future concoctions.
"Why would they want to make an engine that the oil industry couldn't provide fuel for? That's why you have this partnership," said Barry Wood, spokesman in ExxonMobil's northeastern division. "If you've got an existing infrastructure and it works, why wouldn't you want to use it? The amount of money to build a new infrastructure isn't there. Using existing refineries, trucking and delivery systems is essential, in our view. The customer should be able to get a fill-up and notice no difference. It has to be seamless for the customer."
Moreover, he and others interviewed underscore that traditional vehicles with internal combustion engines are not about to go away. For that reason, a hybrid system that accommodates conventional and fuel-cell-based vehicles will be needed. "No matter what, you're going to have a transition period of a number of years from the first fuel-cell car introduction to a time when that is the standard," said Wood.
Interestingly, despite scores of news releases from General Motors, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz and other major auto players touting advancements in fuel-cell technology, there are not many jobbers or c-store operators obsessing over future fuels. Rather, their frame of mind is focused on today's challenges, most notably aggressive market competition from high-volume gasoline retailers, as well as the continual upgrades in federal environmental legislation.
When talk moves to future fuels, response centers around a potentially controversial federal mandate to blend ethanol across the country.
"There's a lot of lip service to alternative fuels but there's no idea of what the infrastructure will be," said John Eichberger, who as petroleum lobbyist for the National Association of Convenience Stores monitors fuel-related technology. "Ultimately it comes down to the fact that you need to have available technology at a reasonable cost. They're still working out the cost."
On the other hand, Eichberger is much more specific about ethanol, reiterating the mantra employed by downstream petroleum advocates that the industry is opposed to any federal mandate concerning specific fuel blends. Establishing clean-air goals — no problem. Telling the industry how to get there — big problem.
"What everyone knows is that ethanol could be part of our future very soon. They've been given a good opportunity to be viable due to the Midwest's influence in Congress," he said. "It's something that we and are allies will be fighting against."
Asked whether petroleum operators should worry about fuel-cell cars making their stations into obsolete, Eichberger was unfazed. "Any alternative fuel program has to take into account the existing infrastructure — pipelines, distribution system. Billions of dollars have been invested. The question is how are alternative fuels going to play within our existing system. It's not going to work outside of the existing infrastructure."
Others agreed, including Bergland, the fuel-cells advocate. Though favoring a cleaner catalyst to produce hydrogen, she acknowledged that gasoline will play an active role for some time. "The oil industry is a hugely powerful one and they aren't going to roll over and stop producing gasoline," she said. "Because of the huge investment in infrastructure, gasoline will be a long-term fuel. It will be lower-sulfur and will be easier to reform, but you're going to have internal combustion engines for many more years. Things aren't going to change so fast."
Dan Gilligan, president of the Petroleum Marketers Association of America, which services branded jobbers, said his membership's concern is not so much about futuristic technologies, but whether their existing brands will be around tomorrow. "It's still viewed by most of our people that it will be 2020 before it could have a dramatic impact — and that would probably be the earliest date. I would have to say that we are taking a reactionary approach, waiting to see how it all plays out."
No rush. Take it easy. That's the message emerging from downstream petroleum folks.
But 15 years from now, don't be surprised if cars idle up to a new kind of pump dispenser that spits out a new type of fuel.
"By 2015," said Bergland, "10 to 20 percent of the vehicles sold could be fuel-cell vehicles — that would be my own outlandish 'guesstimate.' To me, it's incredible that Honda and Toyota are rolling out fuel-cell vehicles next year, even if they sell only 100."