The Department of Energy's (DOE) Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) has developed two core technologies—a fuel desulfurization system and a fuel reforming system—that were instrumental in the demonstration of an electric power system operating on JP-8, a fuel commonly used in military operation. Also known as jet fuel, it boasts many advantages, such as icing inhibitors, corrosion inhibitors, lubricants and antistatic agents. However, another advantage is it now has led to quieter, more efficient portable power generators, which have lower emissions than standard diesel generators.

Portable fuel cell units have traditionally been challenged when using JP-8 fuel because of its sulfur content. The fuel -desulfurization and reforming systems developed at PNNL reduce the sulfur content of JP-8 and generate a hydrogen stream compatible with an integrated fuel cell.

“Running a noisy, hot generator in a war zone is inefficient and can give away your position,” said Dale King, project manager at PNNL. “Not running it can leave you without power for communications and other critical systems.”

This is the problem PNNL has developed the generators to fix, although the desulfurization and reforming technologies can be used with different liquid fuels to provide portable power almost anywhere small size and high performance are important. Researchers envision the technology being used to supply -auxiliary power and heat for long-haul commercial trucks, which would replace the need to run less efficient internal combustion engines while, for example, the trucker stops for the night.

Battelle, the company that operates PNNL for DOE, operated a prototype system demonstrating these technologies during the three-day 2007 Fuel Cell Seminar this fall. During the demonstration, an integrated 5-kilowatt electric power system successfully powered area lights and a commercial refrigerator.

The fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electrical energy with water and heat as byproducts. The process is clean, quiet and highly efficient—potentially up to three times more efficient than internal combustion engines.

As the entire electric industry seems to be moving toward the environmentally conscious, PNNL may have come up with the next movement in generators. That could prove to be a benefit to owners who are concerned with noise, heat buildup or emissions.