At the nuvera fuel cells lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 25-year-old chemical engineer Darryl Pollica stands in front of a prototype 5-kilowatt fuel cell -- a miniature powerplant that can make most of the electricity needed by a family of four. Its metal skin has been removed to reveal a cubical frame about 5 feet on each side, packed with tanks, valves, and electronics. Conspicuously taped to the outside of the frame is a Nokia cellphone.
"That's our mascot," Pollica says. "We want to shrink this," he says, opening his arms as if to embrace the entire assembly, "to this," and he brings them together and points toward the tiny phone.
Pollica's boss, Nuvera Chief Operating Officer Jeff Bentley, a 25-year veteran of the difficult effort to create cost-effective fuel cells that are relatively small, is a bit more cautious. "Maybe," he says, looking toward Pollica with almost parental amusement. "But it's going to take a lot of work."
"We're optimists," Pollica shoots back with a confident smile.
They better be. The year 2001 was supposed to be a memorable one for residential fuel cells; instead, it turned out to be one the industry might prefer to forget. In the late 1990s, several manufacturers announced breakthroughs that, by now, were supposed to have brought the price of fuel cells down to around $5,000 -- cheap enough that a lot of homeowners could be enticed to buy one to generate most or all of their electricity.
The implications were enormous: Imagine a nation of houses powered by a nonpolluting, domestic source of energy that relies on simple chemical reactions to cleanly and silently produce electricity from hydrogen gas. Hot water and a small amount of carbon dioxide are the only waste.
Nothing happened. During the past four years, H Power, Plug Power, and the Electric Power Research Institute, among others -- some of the most bullish residential fuel cell manufacturers and agencies -- promised to install prototype fuel cells in houses to convince people that the technology was a practical source of home energy. Only Plug Power came through. In 1998, the Latham, New York-based fuel cell manufacturer put a 5kW prototype system in one nearby home. That alone was enough for The New York Times to declare that fuel cells were "on the verge of a breakthrough" as an economical energy source. Plug was not able, however, to lower manufacturing costs enough to sell the units to consumers. So, two years later, Plug quietly shelved the project.
Such false starts make it tempting to compare fuel cells to photovoltaics, which produce electricity from sunlight-drenched silicon cells laminated behind glass or plastic. Photovoltaics have for decades captured people's fancy as a simple and environmentally sound electricity solution, but after years of research and development this technology is still too inefficient and expensive for residential use. But fuel cells have an edge over solar power: In addition to investments by a handful of startups, several major corporations are spending more than $1 billion combined annually on fuel cell research. "There has never been funding into photovoltaics and other renewable energy sources that comes close to the amount of money being put into fuel cell development right now," says Robert Stokes, vice president of research and deployment at the Gas Technology Institute.