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A Different Kind of Fuel Cell

By Laurance S. Morrison

A fuel cell generates electric power by separating the electrons from the protons of hydrogen atoms. The electrons generate a current, and then recombine with their protons, and with oxygen, to create water. Fuel cells are considered one of the cleanest ways of producing electricity because they emit water vapor and heat, although many fuel cells draw their hydrogen from methanol, gasoline or natural gas and do give off some pollutants.

The first fuel cells were created in the 19th century and the technology has been used extensively in the manned space program. General Motors created the first demonstration vehicle powered by a fuel cell in the late 1960s. But while leading automotive manufacturers are developing fuel-cell-driven vehicles for introduction in the 2005-2006 timeframe, making fuel cells viable in mass-produced automobiles poses numerous challenges. For one, fuel cells contain expensive precious metals like platinum and palladium. They have not been shown to work in extreme weather. And the nation's gas stations would need to be reconfigured to fuel them.

For these and other reasons, fuel cell developers have yet to fulfill the promise of a cost-competitive, high-efficiency fuel cell device. Most of the automakers developing fuel-cell-powered vehicles that use a Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) type of cell have reported various operating shortcomings, such as the operating temperature range, cost-prohibitive noble metal catalysts prone to poisoning, no energy-recovery capability, and slow start-up.

The Ovonic Regenerative Fuel Cell, being developed by ECD Ovonics, a $40 million 50-50 joint venture with Texaco Energy Systems Inc., is a fundamentally different fuel cell. Its features, the company believes, will make it ideal for vehicle and stationary applications. The cells start instantly at all temperatures and absorb energy during braking. They use proprietary, low-cost, non-noble metal catalyst and achieve higher efficiency through improved fuel economy. And they deliver better power with higher operating voltage and offer a robust, long-life design.

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