Thursday, November 17, 2011

Fuel Cells are Coming On for Scalable Backup and Transportation

You can get a good idea of where fuel cell technology and markets are going by reading through the Fuel Cell Today Industry Outlook 2011 (PDF) report. Fuel cell markets are growing particularly well in Europe and North America, although Asian markets are also seeing significant growth.
Image Credit: Fuel Cell Basics
The fuel cell schematic above shows a generic hydrogen / oxygen fuel cell. Modern fuel cell developments allow for a wide range of fuels which act as hydrogen donours, from methane to diesel to coal to sugars.

Utilities are starting to look at fuel cells for several applications:
Utility adoption of fuel cells can include multiple levels, such as:
Residential combined heat and power (resCHP) for units up to 10 kW per single home and 20 kW per multiple family dwellings.
Baseload generators in commercial buildings and public facilities.
Non-spinning and spinning reserves.
Grid strengthening.
Energy storage for time shifting of renewables.
Off-grid power production._FierceEnergy
Fuel cells are being used at all scales, from industrial backup to remote off-grid applications to power supplies for portable consumer electronics and cellular phones. Fuel cells appear to be particularly resilient in the face of natural disasters, which is reassuring -- since one of the main applications for fuel cells is for backup power when the grid goes down. Perhaps if the Fukushima nuclear reactors had been backed up with fuel cells, at least some of the backup power might have survived to help prevent the meltdown.

Fuel cell researchers are becoming quite clever at substituting low-cost materials for expensive platinum, thus lowering the costs and extending the markets for fuel cells.

Fuel cells are finding applications as power sources for various transportation vehicles -- including airplanes! Military UAVs in particular are utilising fuel cells to achieve quiet flight. An interesting look at a fuel cell hybrid UAV

One particularly fascinating type of fuel is the bacterial fuel cell. The fuel cell discussed in the linked article is meant to purify waste water, but other bacterial fuel cells are meant to generate hydrogen gas, or electricity.

Fuel cells would also be suitable for wilderness resorts and retreats. Propane-powered fuel cells would be particularly appropriate, although if an operator combined some form of H2 generation via renewables with a hydrogen / oxygen fuel cell, he might just hit on the best possible use for wind and solar energy.



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