Sunday, March 18, 2012

Whatever happened to the Fuel Cell?

In November of 2001 British Telecomunications published a white paper prepared by two futurists - Ian Pearson and Ian Neild. It's a bit hard to find online now, but there's an html version on and the original PDF here. I came across it while running one of my custom google searches across my identity archives.

The two Ians are still in business, but I hope they're a bit more cautious these days. Their 2001 forecasts were a bit ... aggressive. The ones they got right were mostly prosaic - mostly gene sequencing, basic demographics, and internet growth.  They missed the rise of China and were oddly too optimistic about mobile internet access.

Otherwise they were way off. In particular, they were absurdly optimistic about the rise of the AI. It's interesting to look at how far off. For example:

Chat show hosted by robot  2003 
Confessions to AI priest   2004 
AI teachers in school      2004 
Computers that write most of their own software  2005 
Domestic appliances with personality and talking head interface 2007 
AI students 2007 
Highest earning celebrity is synthetic 2010 
AI houses which react to occupants 2010 
25 % of TV celebrities synthetic 2010 
Computer agents start being thought of as colleagues instead of 
tools 2013 
Direct electronic pleasure production 2010 
Online surgeries dominate first line medical care 2010 
Orgasm by email 2010 
Quiz shows screen for implant technologies 2010 
Artificial senses, sensors directly stimulating nerves 2012 
Some implants seen as status symbols 2012...

It's a long list. I kept it because in 2001 it was fun but preposterous. I like to think it was prepared at the local pub with a dartboard and a stack of science fiction novels; I hope British Telecomm published it to confuse their enemies. (It makes my own list of failed predictions seems absurdly prescient. Maybe BT should be paying me.)

One of their big misses is, however, interesting for other reasons ...

... Home fuel cell based 7kW generator 2001...

I remember fuel cells. It wasn't only that we were supposed to have them in our homes. They were supposed to power our hydrogen cars; pop magazines had major articles about Canada's BC Based fuel cell industry. Toshiba was a year away, once upon a time, from methanol fuel cells for laptops.

Obviously, none of that happened. Instead fuel cells are showing up in data centers -- and that's supposed to be news.

So why did the Fuel Cell future fail? Ben Wiens, who worked at that BC based fuel cell company, has a good technical description...

A few years ago it looked like micro fuel cells would soon be powering many portable electronic products. But this has not come to pass. One issue is that batteries have become much more powerful, and electronic devices smaller. Also, it has been hard to fit the fuel cell into the same thin profile of the battery. Another issue is that there is a problem with certain fuels being transported by passengers on aircraft. There are still some technical issues to be solved. The present price of fuel cells is higher than batteries. In my opinion the reason why micro fuel cells haven't penetrated the market however has nothing to do with the above factors....

... Fuel cells produce electricity. This is not the desired form of energy for transportation. The electricity must be converted into mechanical power using an electric motor. The Otto or Diesel cycle produces the required mechanical power directly. This gives them an advantage compared to fuel cell powered automobiles.

Presently Otto and Diesel cycle engines seem to be able to comply with extremely stringent pollution regulations, are inexpensive to produce, produce reasonable fuel economy, and use readily available liquid fuels. Fuel cell vehicles have a much greater chance of being accepted however in the future when fuel prices are higher and liquid fossil fuels are in short supply. However fuel cell vehicles will then be competing with electric vehicles which will be cheaper to operate but have problems with recharging...

Wiens article is the best I can find. Which brings up the real point of this post. Why hasn't there been more journalism on what happened to the fuel cell? Doesn't a failed revolution deserve a bit of an obituary? The rise and fall the Fuel Cell, and associated (extreme) hype and post-collapse silence, would make a great cautionary tale. Reading Wiens' summary, it seems as though a few wee issues in thermodynamics and hydrogen production were overlooked. Isn't it worth understanding why these things were missed? Aren't their lessons there that would serve us well now, as the rationalists among us consider our carbon-constrained energy options?

Journalists, where are you?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's a long list but you only share a few predictions and of those mentioned do they loom as preposterous today as they did in 2000 ?