Fuel Cells: Driving Force of the Future

After decades of development, hydrogen-powered vehicles are emerging as the “go-to” alternative to gasoline engines, says Scott Samuelsen

By Kathryn Bold

Fifty years from now, some kid will pop open the hood of his parents’ 2065 Toyota Mirai and find a fuel cell engine with no oil or moving parts instead of the combustion engine people are accustomed to today.

“If they’re the kind of interested and curious teenager I was, they’ll try to take it apart,” predicts Scott Samuelsen, UCI professor emeritus of mechanical, aerospace and environmental engineering. “And they’ll be in even more trouble than if they’d taken apart a gasoline engine. It’s an intricate but elegant technology.”

UCI Energy

As director of UCI’s National Fuel Cell Research Center and the Advanced Power & Energy Program in The Henry Samueli School of Engineering, Samuelsen has led efforts to make the vision of a fuel cell car in every garage a reality. (Video: Samuelsen test-drives a fuel cell car.)

“The 50th anniversary of UCI turns out to be a tipping year for fuel cell vehicles and hydrogen stations to be recognized and embraced,” he says.

Automakers are rolling out attractive fuel cell vehicles that satisfy consumers’ tastes and needs and also meet environmental goals for climate change and urban air quality. More hydrogen stations are opening in California, so drivers will soon be able to fill ’em up all over the state.

“Fuel cells will be as pervasive in our homes and businesses as personal computers are today.”

If things keep going along this route, Samuelsen notes, fuel cells will be the go-to energy source for cars with the range and short fueling times drivers have grown accustomed to with gasoline-powered vehicles. Because they emit none of the greenhouse gas or “smog” producing pollutants that fossil fuels do, they’re a game-changer for the environment and a win for the nation’s fuel independence, he adds.

Here, Samuelsen discusses recent developments on the fuel cell front and his hopes for a future with smog-free skies – his mission since he was a youngster working on cars.

Q: Your research focuses on alternative, Earth-friendly energy systems. How did you become interested in this field?

Samuelsen: I grew up in Pasadena, a city that was heavily impacted by smog. I was often told that I couldn’t exercise at all during the day, or if I did, it would have to be indoors. And it seemed to be a new nuisance that hadn’t been seen before. So I developed an interest in what was giving rise to degraded air quality.

In addition, my innate interest in building things led me to study mechanical engineering, particularly the opportunity to develop or modify engines that convert the energy bound in fuel into electricity to power a home or automobile, or into thrust to propel an airplane.

Q: What do you see as the future of energy?

Samuelsen: There’ll be a paradigm shift in the automobile’s engine and fuel – and in the generation of electricity in homes and business spaces that today we all take for granted.

We insert a plug into the wall, we turn on a computer, we switch on our TV and our KitchenAid mixer, and they work. We don’t realize that the source of that electricity is actually causing significant environmental challenges for future generations.

The fuel cell, along with solar and wind – renewable energy – will play a major role in meeting those challenges and reducing carbon emissions. Fuel cells will be as pervasive in our homes and businesses as personal computers are today.

Q: How do fuel cells help the environment?

Samuelsen: What’s remarkable about fuel cells is that they have no moving parts or emissions of pollutants. For the automobile, they run on hydrogen, not gasoline or diesel. For generating electricity, they run on natural gas or renewable biogas.

The only gaseous species coming out of fuel cells’ exhaust are water vapor and nitrogen. They don’t have these other pollutants – partially oxidized hydrocarbons and oxides of nitrogen – that lead to smog and carbon monoxide.

Fuel cells are a critical path to improving air quality and cutting the emissions that contribute to global warming.

Q: How do fuel cell electric vehicles compare to electric-battery cars?

Samuelsen: A fuel cell electric vehicle has a longer range and short refueling time. A reasonably priced car that runs solely on an electric battery has a range of 80 to 100 miles, whereas the fuel cell car has a range between 300 and 400 miles – what we’re used to in gas-powered vehicles. And that range will be extended, because the efficiency of the fuel cell engine is still ratcheting up. Filling a fuel cell vehicle takes less than five minutes, just like today’s car.

fuel cell car

Q: What needs to happen to make fuel cell cars more viable?

Samuelsen: There are two steps: One is developing a vehicle that the public finds to be an attractive, reliable option to the gasoline vehicle. That’s been accomplished in spades by companies such as Toyota, Honda, Hyundai and Mercedes.

Hyundai began retail deployment of a fuel cell vehicle, the Tucson, in June 2014. This fall, Toyota will release its first commercially available fuel cell vehicle, the Mirai. It’s a sedan like the Camry. That’s saying that yes, we’re ready.

The other step is providing enough hydrogen stations so that when you need to refuel the car, you have ready access to a dispenser. California – along with Japan and Germany – is leading the world in this area.

We have almost 15 stations, including one here at UCI that’s been in operation since 2003, but we expect by the end of this year to more than double the number of stations in the state. We expect to grow to at least 100 stations by 2020.

hydrogen station

At UCI, our computer model [called STREET for Spatially and Temporally Resolved Energy and Environment Tool] has shown that 68 stations are needed throughout the state to enable the market, and we’ll be at that point by the end of 2017. STREET was created by a team led by one of our former students [Shane Stephens-Romero, M.S. ’08, Ph.D. ’11] and identifies where those stations should be placed.

The plan is to drive comfortably within the region and be able to travel from San Diego to San Francisco to Lake Tahoe to Santa Barbara, although it’ll be a while before you can get to Oregon or Colorado. But at least for a majority of your trips [within California] you’ll be covered.

Q: How else will fuel cells be used?

Samuelsen: Fuel cells also go from very small – we’re working on ones that can power a cellphone or laptop – to very large, for central power plants. No other technology has done this.

There will be fuel cells located in homes, hotels, hospitals and at universities. That’s already left the station. Kaiser Permanente hospital in Irvine has 1 megawatt of fuel cells as part of its power plant. UC San Diego has 2.8 megawatts of fuel cells, and UC Irvine Medical Center is installing a 1.4-megawatt fuel cell. Over 100 megawatts have been deployed statewide.

Q: When they write the history of fuel cells, how do you think UCI will be remembered?

Samuelsen: As pioneering the future in the generation of power and utilization of energy. In 1998, UCI established the National Fuel Cell Research Center, the first in the world dedicated to fuel cells, with the U.S. Department of Energy and the California Energy Commission. The center today is at the forefront of the paradigm shifts in transportation and generation of electricity and is recognized as an international leader in resolving the conflict between energy use and protecting the environment. The future is here.