Efficiency of Fuel Cells
In this section, we will take a look at how fuel cells might improve the efficiency of cars today. Remember that pollution reduction is one of the primary goals of the fuel cell.

We will compare a fuel-cell-powered car to a gasoline-engine-powered car and a battery-powered car. Since all three types of cars have many of the same components (tires, transmissions, etc.), we'll ignore that part of the car and compare efficiencies up to the point where mechanical power is generated. Let's start with the fuel-cell car. (All of these efficiencies are approximations, but they should be close enough to make a rough comparison.)

Fuel-Cell-Powered Electric Car
If the fuel cell is powered with pure hydrogen, it has the potential to be up to 80-percent efficient. That is, it converts 80 percent of the energy content of the hydrogen into electrical energy. But, as we learned in the previous section, hydrogen is difficult to store in a car. When we add a reformer to convert methanol to hydrogen, the overall efficiency drops to about 30 to 40 percent.

We still need to convert the electrical energy into mechanical work. This is accomplished by the electric motor and inverter. A reasonable number for the efficiency of the motor/inverter is about 80 percent. So we have 30- to 40-percent efficiency at converting methanol to electricity, and 80-percent efficiency converting electricity to mechanical power. That gives an overall efficiency of about 24 to 32 percent.

Gasoline-Powered Car
The efficiency of a gasoline-powered car is surprisingly low. All of the heat that comes out as exhaust or goes into the radiator is wasted energy. The engine also uses a lot of energy turning the various pumps, fans and generators that keep it going. So the overall efficiency of an automotive gas engine is about 20 percent. That is, only about 20 percent of the thermal-energy content of the gasoline is converted into mechanical work.

Battery-Powered Electric Car
This type of car has a fairly high efficiency. The battery is about 90-percent efficient (most batteries generate some heat, or require heating), and the electric motor/inverter is about 80-percent efficient. This gives an overall efficiency of about 72 percent.

But that is not the whole story. The electricity used to power the car had to be generated somewhere. If it was generated at a power plant that used a combustion process (rather than nuclear, hydroelectric, solar or wind), then only about 40 percent of the fuel required by the power plant was converted into electricity. The process of charging the car requires the conversion of alternating current (AC) power to direct current (DC) power. This process has an efficiency of about 90 percent.

So, if we look at the whole cycle, the efficiency of an electric car is 72 percent for the car, 40 percent for the power plant and 90 percent for charging the car. That gives an overall efficiency of 26 percent. The overall efficiency varies considerably depending on what sort of power plant is used. If the electricity for the car is generated by a hydroelectric plant for instance, then it is basically free (we didn't burn any fuel to generate it), and the efficiency of the electric car is about 65 percent.

Maybe you are surprised by how close these three technologies are. This exercise points out the importance of considering the whole system, not just the car. We could even go a step further and ask what the efficiency of producing gasoline, methanol or coal is.

Efficiency is not the only consideration, however. People will not drive a car just because it is the most efficient if it makes them change their behavior. They are concerned about many other issues as well. They want to know:

  • Is the car quick and easy to refuel?
  • Can it travel a good distance before refueling?
  • Is it as fast as the other cars on the road?
  • How much pollution does it produce?
This list, of course, goes on and on. In the end, the technology that dominates will be a compromise between efficiency and practicality.