Fuel cells have been around for more than 100 years. But the availability of
fossil fuels and the high cost of producing energy from fuel cells have made
the technology slow to catch on.
A fuel cell is a generator that chemically produces electricity from hydrogen
and oxygen. It produces DC power like a battery, but, unlike a battery, it never
dies, as long as fuel is supplied.
In 2002, there were 4 million phosphoric acid fuel cell customers worldwide.
The systems are used in hospitals, schools, power plants, hotels and office
buildings to generate power.
Customers are paying $4,500 per kilowatt for that capability. “A steep
price,” said Dianne Hooie, of the Department of Energy’s National
Energy Technology Laboratory.
The cost of fuel cells hasn’t stopped the pursuit of the technology.
Under the Department of Energy’s Solid State Energy Conversion Alliance
(SECA), government and manufacturers are working together to bring the cost
of fuel cells down to $400 kW by 2010. A lower cost fuel cell could increase
the commercial demand for the systems, resulting in even lower costs, said Gary
McVay, director of fuel cell programs at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
The military has been one of prime drivers behind fuel cell technology. Researchers
are looking for ways to operate remote military bases, run vehicles without
generating noise or exhaust and for a lightweight, low-cost system that could
replace batteries, said Peter Dalpe, a spokesman with UTC Power.
Among the more promising technologies is the polymer electrolyte membrane (also
known as proton exchange membrane or PEM) system, which operates at the low
temperature range for fuel cells—around 175 degrees F. It has a high power
density, it can quickly vary output to meet demand, and is suited for applications
requiring a quick start such as a car. PEM units are capable of generating between
50 to 250 kW, and are lightweight. However, unless pure hydrogen is used, the
fuel needs to be processed to make a hydrogen-rich gas.
“Right now, reformers are refrigerator sized,” McVay said. “PNNL
is working on micro-reformers to generate hydrogen.”