Running Cars on Plain Bo

THE AMAZING PART ISN'T THAT THE BUS SHUTTLING passengers between terminals at Los Angeles International Airport is powered by what amounts to a chemical perpetual-motion machine: it runs on a fuel cell, a sort of battery that never needs recharging. Nor is it that the 553-room Hyatt Regency in Irvine, Calif., gets electricity from a fuel cell, too, which is not only quiet enough to sit beside the tennis court but doesn't emit as much as a molecule of smog-making pollution. Nor is the amazing thing that 50 more fuel cells are or soon will be churning out electricity at places like California's Folsom prison, a computer center in New Jersey, the Plaza hotel in Osaka, Kaiser Permanente hospitals and Kraft Foods in Buena Park, Calif. Fuel cells are indeed "a remarkable technology," says consultant Curtis Moore, coauthor of the recent book on environmentally sound technology called "Green Gold." "But the most remarkable thing is, nobody knows about them."

That will change. "The demand for clean energy [for transportation as well as energy] will drive the technology," says David Ramm, CEO of International Fuel Cell (IFC). Burning oil, gas or coal produces electricity; burning gasoline moves vehicles. But combustion sends pollution out the tailpipe or up the smokestack. Fuel cells, in contrast, produce electricity not by combustion but by chemistry. They combine hydrogen (typically, as a gas or from methanol or natural gas) with oxygen from the air to produce electricity, water . . . and nothing else (diagram). They emit essentially no pollution. They date from 1839, when a British lawyer-cum-inventor, Sir William Grove, came up with the principle, but they remained only lab curiosities until NASA put them aboard the Gemini and Apollo capsules to provide electricity and potable water. Now they're coming down to Earth:

Vehicles: California and some Eastern states require that an increasing percentage of cars sold, starting in 1998, produce no tailpipe emissions. Burning anything--gasoline, methanol, natural gas or other "alternative fuel"--produces some emissions. The only way to get to zero is with electricity. Although "electric" has become synonymous with "battery powered," a fuel cell would give a car more zip and power, could operate a heavier vehicle (like a truck or bus) and would never need recharging. It could rebel at a landfill (garbage dumps emit methane, a rich source of hydrogen) or with a canister of natural gas, also a hydrogen source. Fuel cells make possible the dream of running a car on water: separate water into b and O and, pres-to--car fuel. Abus made by Ballard Power Systems, with a 500-amp, 57-volt fuel cell by H Power--a New Jersey-based fuel-cell manufacturer--started taking passengers around LAX this month. Daimler-Benz already has a prototype fuel-cell Mercedes. The biggest hurdle: reducing the cost from $2,000 per kilowatt to $50. But Alan Lloyd of the Southern California Air Pollution Control District thinks that will come: "The question is not if, but when."

Electricity: In California, ten 200-kilowatt fuel cells from IFC are providing power to hotels, hospitals and offices. And there's no reason fuel cells must be confined to single-building uses. The Tokyo Electric Power Co., the largest private power company in the world, installed an 11-megawatt unit in 1990. Energy Research Corp. is constructing a $40 million fuel-cell power plant in Santa Clara, Calif.; by next summer, it should be providing two megawatts to the city. Fuel cells have to get cheaper if they're going to displace traditional sources of energy. They now generate a kilowatt for about $3,000; IFC's Ramm predicts that within four years the price will drop to $1,500 (five cents a kilowatt-hour). That would make fuel cells competitive with electricity from off, coal or gas. And then fuel cells would be even more like a perpetual-motion machine: all the electricity you want without a speck of pollution.

A fuel cell is the chemical version of a perpetual motion machine. Hydrogen and oxygen, separated by a sheet similar to plastic wrap or by an electrolyte solution (below), combine. The reaction yields electricity and water. Unlike a battery, a fuel cell never needs recharging.