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Bus showcases fuel cell technology

The fuel cell-powered bus is 10 percent more efficient than comparable diesel buses  
May 19, 1998
Web posted at: 6:43 p.m. EDT (2243 GMT)

By Environmental News Network staff

(ENN) -- A fuel cell-powered bus will be roaming Florida streets this coming fall and winter to showcase what some automakers are touting as the successor to the internal combustion engine.

The bus, which was one of three built as a prototype in 1993 with a $30-million grant primarily from the Department of Energy, will be driven by researchers from the University of Florida who hope to promote their work in the emerging field of fuel cell technology.

The university's mechanical engineering department was given the bus by the federal government early this year for research and development, said mechanical engineering professor Vernon Roan.

"Lots and lots of things are happening that indicate a worldwide interest, and most of the knowledgeable people are convinced that the next-generation replacement for the internal combustion engine is going to be a fuel cell," Roan said.

Jim Fletcher, a mechanical engineering doctoral student in fuel cell technology, said the bus is 10 percent more efficient than comparable diesel buses -- a first step in what researchers expect will one day be a far more efficient form of transportation.

"We really and truly expect that fuel cells are going to double the fuel efficiency of the best internal combustion engines and in some cases triple it," Roan said.

When the bus's fuel processing system converts methanol to hydrogen, it also produces carbon dioxide, but at lower levels than diesel engines. The bus emits much less hydrocarbons, nitrous oxides and particulate matter than diesels, Fletcher said.

Fuel cells create electricity from an electrochemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. The process reverses electrolysis, which many may recall from a high school experiment that involved placing two electrodes in water, passing an electric current through them and collecting the hydrogen and oxygen that bubbled off.

"If you turn the experiment around and put the hydrogen and oxygen in and take the electricity off, you have a fuel cell," Roan said.

The technology has promise in a couple of areas. Fuel cells that use only hydrogen and oxygen don't pollute. Their only emission is water. And fuel cells are more efficient than internal combustion engines because they do not create as much unused heat.

The barrier to using the devices in vehicles is no one knows how to carry enough hydrogen, a light and flammable gas that is difficult to compress, to be useful. "The problem with hydrogen is that it is not a very portable fuel," Roan said.

Earlier this month, researchers at a federal laboratory in Colorado announced they developed a one-step process that uses solar power to convert water into hydrogen. In the long term, the development could bring about solar powered cars. But in the short term, researchers are working on reformers which produce hydrogen aboard vehicles by extracting the gas from methanol or other hydrocarbon fuels -- a process that can release pollutants, though at far lower levels than internal combustion engines, Roan said.

Research at the University of Florida's fuel cell lab aims largely at making such fuel cell systems more efficient and less polluting and integrating them with vehicles, he said. "We're interested in actually putting together the entire thing and making it work," he said.

Copyright 1998, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved


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