US electric vehicle maker ZAP has teamed up with Enable Fuel Cell Corporation to produce a hydrogen fuel cell for electric-assist bicycles.

Full steam ahead for ZAP’s fuel-cell powered bike

What ZAP says will be the world’s first commercially available fuel cell powered electric bicycle will be shipped sometime in 2002.

A prototype will be wheeled out at the ZAP shareholder meeting on 16th June in California.

Hydrogen fuel cells produce electricity from hydrogen and oxygen with the only by-product being water vapour.

"We believe an electric bicycle is the most practical near-term application of fuel cell technology," said ZAP CEO Gary Starr.

Other companies trying to bring fuel-cell technology to market include US firm Manhattan Scientifics; Aprilia of Italy and Palcan of Canada.


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A fuel cell combines aspects of an engine and a battery. Like an engine, a fuel cell will run as long as fuel (hydrogen) is supplied. Like a battery, it produces electricity by electrochemical reactions.

A fuel cell, like a battery, has an anode side and a cathode side with an electrode (the exchange membrane) in between. In a proton-exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell, hydrogen is supplied to the anode where it breaks apart into protons and electrons. The electrode conducts protons but not electrons. The protons flow through the electrode while the electrons travel through the external circuit and provide electrical power. The electrons and protons are reunited at the cathode and combine with oxygen from the air to produce water. Fuel cell stacks are created by layering the cells on top of each other, allowing for more power to be generated. The water evaporates from the fuel cell stack into the surrounding air.

No pollution is emitted by a PEM fuel cell running on hydrogen; only electricity, heat and pure water are produced. In addition, fuel cell construction materials are benign to the environment. Fuel cells are not new-they were invented by Sir William R. Grove in 1839. However, fuel cells capable of producing significant power were not developed until 1959 when Francis T. Bacon introduced an alkaline fuel cell capable of producing 5,000 watts (5kW). Bacon’s fuel cell served as a starting point for the fuel cells developed by NASA and used to provide electrical power on both the Gemini and Apollo spacecraft. As a result of NASA’s work, fuel cells were shown to be capable of efficient and reliable electrical power generation.

Unfortunately, the fuel cells of that era were also inherently expensive (mostly due to the large amount of platinum needed to manufacture the fuel cells). In the late 1980s and early 1990s, significant reductions in the amount of platinum needed for PEM fuel cells were obtained. Much of this work was performed at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), a government-owned (U.S. Department of Energy) facility located in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

In 1996 and 1997, Mahlon S. Wilson of LANL developed a smaller, simpler class of fuel cells that relies on ambient air pressure for oxygen and on its own water generation for humidification (instead of pumps and fans, which are needed in other types of fuel cell technologies). Mr. Wilson improved PEM technology by designing a round fuel cell stack in which hydrogen is delivered through a central tube that also houses the bolt that holds the stack assembly together. This design is smaller, lighter, and easier to fabricate than rectangular PEM fuel cells, and it is also more efficient because it leaves the entire exposed surface of the cell open for ambient oxygen intake and heat dissipation. It also more efficiently retains water, the reaction product, to prevent dehydration of the cell. The circular fuel cell can be packaged as a D-cell battery-sized stack combined with a metal hydride canister that will last more than three times as long as a comparably sized pack of nickel-cadmium batteries. The cells also can be easily ganged together for higher power applications.

In 1998, DCH Technology, Inc., successfully negotiated a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) and exclusive license agreement with LANL for the "air-breathing proton-exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell," patented by Mr. Wilson, LANL and the United States Department of Energy. DCH Technology, Inc., conducts this activity today through its wholly-owned subsidiary, the EnAble™ Fuel Cell Corporation.

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