September 13, 2004

Fuels, no cells 

Just today I spoke with my colleague: he's a researcher, and spent several years studying fuel cells. Not just in the college, but also with a company - thus with an eye to the realities of the market.

He said that an automotive use of fuel cells is "not practical".

Because fuel cells are still very expensive (would you like a city car to cost as much as a Ferrari?), and have a short life, much shorter than an internal combustion engine.
That is a big problem, and it's not going to be solved anytime soon. It will take at least another ten years before fuel cells have any significant diffusion, and still I think those cars will be leased, being very expensive and needing intensive maintenance.

Maybe eventually fuel cells will become valid substitutes for traditional engines, but not in a few years, forget about it. It's not a matter of neglected research; it's a really non-trivial (very difficult) problem for purely physical and chemical reasons.

The scenario is a bit better for the use of fuel cells on buses and trains, where factors like dimensions and weight constraints are less important, and maintenance follows a precise schedule anyway.

Fuel cells are not a magic wand. Nothing is.

Update. There is one more problem with fuel cells: they cannot be started quickly. An internal combustion engine strarts in a few seconds, while a fuel cell takes much longer.


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