An energy transition with the potential to revolutionize the country's infrastructure is gaining momentum. It is not brokered through expanded power grids or traditional fossil-based economics-it is powered through fuel cells.

Fuel cell development is on the upswing. Existing and emerging fuel cell technologies have applications in motor vehicles, large and small business power generation, portable electronic devices and homes. As the technologies and applications have increased, so has the opportunity for installation projects.

The drive toward commercially ready fuel cell products continues to bump up against one of its biggest barriers: cost. As fuel-cell development continues to focus on cost reductions along with improved reliability and operation in a wide variety of climate conditions, several manufacturers have successfully developed commercial applications that are reaching into more segments of the electrical contractor market.

Addiction to electrons

Fuel cells are not a new technology. England's Sir William Grove invented simple fuel cells in 1839. Other scientists advanced the concept and fuel cells have been used in NASA spacecraft since the Gemini and Apollo missions in the 1960s.

According to Mark Schiller, director of business development for hydrogen generation technology manufacturer Proton Energy Systems, the combination of recent environmental initiatives and utility deregulation has ignited global consumer demand for clean and efficient energy sources. The investment by industry and government is into the billions with Fortune 500 companies such as General Electric, ChevronTexaco and General Motors actively pursuing the advancement of technologies and execution of projects that will use hydrogen and fuel cells.

While the fuel cell industry shows signs of mobilization, securing funding on a national scale is still challenging, said Robert Rose, executive director of U.S. Fuel Cell Council and Breakthrough Technologies Institute. Rose said the world economy is “addicted to oil.”

“World oil demand exceeded 82 million barrels a day in 2003. We are also developing an addiction to electrons,” Rose said. “Consumers increasingly are intolerant of interruptions in service as they have become more dependent. In the United States, one home in five has an electric toothbrush.”

Fuel cells, Rose said, will be up to the task.

“We are making impressive technical progress. Better stack and system life, new confidence on cost reduction, terrific performance for fuel cell vehicles in field tests. Fuel cell generators are in the field meeting customer needs today.”

Schiller said the overall U.S. fuel cell market will continue to evolve along a path of increased product commercialization with the greatest opportunities in the market segments that use premium power-specifically backup power.

“In terms of installation of power and integrated building systems, fuel cells offer an attractive solution for backup power,” Schiller said. “They can also reduce the grid requirements when they are integrated into renewable systems. In these types of applications, the fuel cells can be used during peak-power demands when grid power is more expensive, and utilize the grid during off-peak times to recharge the fuel cell systems.”

Renewable energy sources

Since 1996, Proton Energy Systems, Wallingford, Conn., has been developing low- and high-pressure systems and has more than 400 units operating in the field. In addition to serving the hydrogen industry, the company has focused considerable research and development on systems that provide power quality and reliability, and renewable power applications that facilitate renewable energy solutions by storing energy produced by natural power sources. These last two markets deliver fuel cell technology in a form that electrical contractors can install.

Proton Energy Systems is on the leading edge of hydrogen-generation systems for fuel cells based on proton-exchange membrane (PEM) electrolysis technology. A fuel cell is an electrochemical energy conversion device that converts hydrogen and oxygen into water, producing an electric current in the process.

PEM fuel cells, which offer one of the most promising technologies for powering automobiles and structures, uses one of the simplest reactions of any cell with four basic elements: anode, cathode, electrolyte and catalyst.

With the PEM fuel-cell platform, Proton has developed the UNIGEN regenerative fuel cell system, which reversibly converts electricity to hydrogen and hydrogen back to electricity as demand warrants. Proton's HOGEN hydrogen generators powered from grid, wind, solar or hydroelectric sources can convert water and electrical energy to hydrogen that can be stored.

Proton's UNIGEN fuel cell system allows energy to be stored in a highly available form that is engineered for backup power systems and premium power. The UNIGEN system charges or stores energy in the hydrogen generation mode. The Proton cell electrolyzes retained fuel cell byproduct water during the charge mode to generate hydrogen and oxygen gases at pressures suitable for gaseous storage up to 2,000 psi without compressors.

In the power-generation (fuel-cell) mode, stored hydrogen and oxygen are allowed to react to release energy and form byproduct water that is retained in the system.

Backup power on demand

In the past, one key factor limiting the usefulness of renewable power sources has been battery capacity, the ability to store enough electricity to meet user need during extended periods of calm or cloudy days. Hydrogen storage and reconversion to electricity provides the mechanism to turn intermittent renewable energy into power on demand. Those factors, as well as pollution control, were the driving forces behind the installation of a UNIGEN system at Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn., where it provides hydrogen-generated, on-demand backup power to critical building controls and systems.

One of the largest entertainment facilities in the Northeast, Mohegan Sun consists of more than 100,000 square feet of meeting and function space, more than 300,000 square feet of gaming floor, a 1,200-room luxury hotel and a 10,000-seat arena.

Installed in 2004 under a Department of Energy contract, the system provides backup power to the control systems for the room where natural gas fuel processors are located. The level of this backup power is approximately 3kW and sustains the facility for 50 hours.

An early adopter of fuel cell-powered renewable energy, Schiller said the Mohegans' self-implemented pollution restrictions have also required two natural gas fuel processors on-site and additional diesel generators for longer-term outages.

Portable power

Cost reductions and concentrated focus on fuel-cell applications have resulted in more compact configurations. Ballard Power Systems in British Columbia, Canada, has recently introduced the AirGen fuel-cell generator, one of the world's first portable unit for indoor operation.

Fueled by compressed hydrogen available from industrial gas suppliers, the AirGen also functions as a standby uninterruptible power supply (UPS). During a power outage, the unit starts automatically, preventing phone and computer systems from crashing. Unlike short-term battery backup systems, the fuel-cell generator will produce electricity as long as it has a fuel supply. A built-in surge-suppression system insulates electronics from high-voltage surges and brownouts.

Ballard develops and manufactures PEM fuel cells for a wide variety of stationary and portable power applications. Ballard's technology is being used in the first fleet of fuel-cell production vehicles built by Ford Motor Co. for the Department of Energy's demonstration program launched last September.

All of these recent fuel-cell advancements and others around the country prompted Robert Rose to ask pointed questions last fall of attendees at the 2004 Fuel Cell Seminar in San Antonio.

“How valuable would 100 fuel cell buses have been in the recent spate of hurricanes in the Southeast, set up to provide both transport and electrical power, even a little emergency water? How valuable would 1,000 fuel cell generators have been to the schools, hospitals and emergency service centers?” Rose asked.

The answers seem obvious. EC

MCCLUNG, owner of Woodland Communications, is a construction writer from Iowa. She can be reached via e-mail at mcclung@lisco.com.