Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Fuel Cells in the News

There's a brief article on the herald website today about fuel cells (how come it's on the website but in the paper? is web grammer dictated or does it evolve?). Fuel cells are my area of expertise so i guess i should be excited to see that they're mentioned in the news but alas, the Herald fails to meet my incredibly low standards for NZ MSM science reporting. What does a good science article include? At a first glance:
  1. Outline why this sci/tech thing is being researched at all
  2. Give a reasonable guide as to how it works, liberal use of analogies at this point is not just helpful but probably mandatory
  3. Feel free to point to other sources of information i.e. that webby thing that everyone keeps harping on about
Sad to say, i think the herald failed on all 3 points. Here's a near paragraph by paragraph list of their miserable failings:
  1. Why is Cannon developing an alternative to batteries? Don't know, the story didn't point this out.
  2. Fuel cells are like batteries but they are not batteries and a phrase such as "fuel-cell batteries" is just stupid.
  3. "Fuel-cell technology mixes hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity". No they don't. Not even close. Mixing hydrogen and oxygen is always, ALWAYS a very bad idea. Fuel cells work by a far more subtle, and dare i use the word, elegant method that does not burn the fuel but still ends up with the combustion products (this has prompted me to write a post on fuel cells so i'll address how that happens soon)
  4. Skip the next two paragraphs, neither of these explain why fuel cells might be an attractive product for Cannon to develop, this must be the adver-tainment section.
  5. "While most of the development of tiny fuel cells is currently focused on devices that derive hydrogen from methanol, Canon is working on a system that supplies hydrogen directly from a refillable cartridge. ". This paragraph is actually coherant and not immediately false.
  6. "Canon's system would be more environmentally friendly because fuel cells that extract hydrogen from methanol emit some carbon dioxide as a byproduct. Fuel cells that use only hydrogen do not". False or at best misleading. You don't go out and pick up hydrogen off the beach, you have to make it, it is an energy carrier not an energy source. Using hydrogen at the point-of-use is merely displacing the emmissions of CO2 to the place where it was made/extracted from other molecules like natural gas or coal. Jeez, if i could just change one thing about reporting fuel cells, it would be this...
  7. "The Tokyo-based company has developed three prototypes. One is relatively large and would likely be used in a compact printer, another is the right size for a digital camera, and the smallest is about 3 cm by 4 cm for tinier mobile devices." I nearly gave this paragraph a tick until i realised they only give 2 dimensions for their smallest one. is it 3x4x300 cm?
  8. "Fuel cells promise longer battery life than existing lithium-ion batteries but there are several hurdles on the road to commercialization.". Fuel cells aren't batteries. This statement is analogous to 'cars with petrol can go further than electric cars', true but only if the car has more petrol than the electric car. fuel cells need fuel continuously on demand and don't store it in advance like a battery hence, depending on how much fuel you have it may last longer, the same or less than a battery. Oh yeah, WHAT HURDLES?? Don't you think this might be interesting? Would you get away with saying 'The NIH thinks curing cancer is a good idea but many hurdles remain'? Good grief, science loves problems, that's all it does on a daily basis, surely anyone reading this far into the article would appreciate an idea of what the big problems are? (hint: they run at about 100 degrees Celcius and emit hot steam, how does that work for consumer electronics??)
  9. "Canon has not yet decided on how to sell the product, but would likely refill the hydrogen cartridges at Canon outlets.". I'd say that's the least of its problems.
So on a score out of 10, this article gets 1/10 and thats only because 3 (non-essential) paragraphs were spell checked and not demonstrably false. Good grief, memo to Herald editors:
Dear NZ Herald,
Please stop publishing press releases as science articles or at the very least tag them as such. While you're at it, please hire a reporter that has a science degree and can at least look up technical issues in Wiki.
Oh yeah, don't assume all you're readers have a reading level equivalency of 12, feel free to sprinkle in something informative, well researched and shock/horror, that may require a little effort on their behalf.


Blogger Tony said...

I was out web surfing and stumbled across your blog. I've really enjoyed reading your blog. Very interesting and thought provoking.

My science news article site has lots of info pertaining to science news article.

Come visit sometime :)

4:18 AM  

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