Fuel Cell Energy: What is it? What can it do?

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Alternative energy sources are a hot topic, and with so many options out there it can be hard to keep track of all of them. One energy source that’s been making waves in the U.S. is hydrogen fuel cell energy, originally developed by the Glenn Research Center at NASA.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), “Fuel cells are an important enabling technology for the nation’s energy portfolio and have the potential to revolutionize the way we power our nation, offering cleaner, more efficient alternatives to the combustion of gasoline and other fossil fuels. Fuel cells have the potential to replace the internal combustion engine in vehicles and provide power in stationary and portable power applications because they are energy efficient, clean and fuel flexible.”

What are Fuel Cells and How Do They Work?
Fuel cells use the chemical energy of hydrogen to cleanly and efficiently produce electricity with water and heat as byproducts. Fuel cells are unique in their variety of applications; they can provide energy for systems as big as an entire city and as small as a home computer. Fuel cells emit no emissions at the point of operation, including greenhouse gasses and air pollutants that are responsible for smog.

According to the Center for Fuel Cells at the University of South Carolina: “Fuel cells generate electricity from a simple electrochemical reaction in which oxygen and hydrogen combine to form water. There are several different types of fuel cells, but they are all based around a central design which consists of two electrodes, a negative anode and a positive cathode. These are separated by a solid or liquid electrolyte that carries electrically charged particles between the two electrodes. A catalyst, such as platinum, is often used to speed up the reactions at the electrodes.”

Current Technology
Fuel cells are currently being developed to power passenger vehicles, commercial buildings, homes and small devices such as laptop computers. Fuel cell systems can be extremely efficient over sizes ranging from a single kilowatt to hundreds of megawatts. When heat production is combined with power generation, overall efficiencies can exceed 80 percent. According to the US DOE, “Fuel cell systems integrated with hydrogen production and storage can provide fuel for vehicles, energy for heating and cooling, and electricity to power our communities.”

Fuel Cell Companies on the Rise
Named by CNN as one of the 15 companies that will change the world, Bloom Energy in Sunnyvale, California, has created a unique onsite power generating system called an Energy Server™ or Bloom Box that can provide 100kW of power—enough to meet the needs of 100 homes or a small office building. Bloom Energy boasts such clients as Google for which it installed Energy Servers™ totaling 400kW on Google’s main campus. In the first 18 months these servers delivered 3.8 million kWh of electricity.

ClearEdge Power, headquartered in Hillsboro, Oregon, manufactures and powers the ClearEdge5, a compact power and heat energy system for use in residential and small commercial buildings. The ClearEdge5 for residential use is about the size of a refrigerator and hooks up to your home’s natural gas supply and, through its fuel processor, draws the hydrogen molecules out. The ClearEdge5 operates at 90 percent efficiency and can cut energy costs by as much as 50 percent.

Fuel Cell R&D Activities and Future Technology
According to the U.S. DOE, “The Fuel Cell Technologies fuel cell research and development activities are aimed at reducing fuel cell system cost and size and improving the performance and durability of fuel cell systems for transportation and for small stationary and portable applications.” The DOE’s research and development program supports fuel cell development in three primary areas: transportation fuel cell systems, distributed and stationary fuel cell systems and fuel cell subsystems and components.

Whether fuel cell energy will be intended as a primary power source for everyday use or as a backup during emergencies and peak grid demand, fuel cells provide an efficient and eco-friendly solution to the energy industry.

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