Fuel cells are one solution for generating stationary power for industry and grid balancing, but they are currently not competitive with conventional generation. Marc Height has a look at the market and at new, lower-cost technology coming to the fore that could change the playing field.
Input hydrogen and oxygen into a very particular box and, like magic, electricity is produced, alongside heat and water.
The box, a fuel cell, works like a neverdepleting battery, by creating an environment where ions can flow from a positively charged anode to a negatively charged cathode, and electrons can create an electric current. Hydrogen is the most popular ‘fuel’ used to do this, and the electrons are stripped from the gas at the anode as part of the process (see box).
Generating constant electricity with (drinkable) water being the only byproduct still seems like it could be too good to be true. But it is not – fuel cells have been around more than 100 years. However, using a fuel cell to generate electricity in a competitive manner with conventional forms of generation may well be too good to be true, at least at the present time.
However, advances in catalyst development are bringing down the costs of producing fuel cells and, for industrial applications, especially in areas where hydrogen is readily available, there could be real opportunities for companies to install fuel cell units to generate on-site power.
History and applications
Fuel cells have a history that stretches back to the 1800s. Although the foundations for what would eventually become the fuel cell was being demonstrated in the early part of that century, what was effectively the first fuel cell, the thencalled ‘gas battery’, was invented in Britain in 1838 by William Grove. The idea was developed further and, in 1889, the first named fuel cell was created.
Moving to the mid-1900s, fuel cells enjoyed an extensive period of rapid development from NASA for use on the agency’s space missions. Things went relatively quiet for the technology after this, with momentum picking up again in the 2000s.
Today, fuel cells can be bought ‘off the shelf’ in a variety of shapes and sizes. Early examples, such as that developed in 1939 by Francis Bacon, totalling 5 kWof output, compare with currently available 350 kW fuel cell stacks. These can then themselves be scaled up further. The US-based manufacturer FuelCell Energy, for example, produces modular stacks that can be lumped together with an accompanying balance of plant to produce multimegawatt configurations.
There are three main markets for fuel cell power today:
- mobile fuel cells in hydrogenpowered vehicles;
- portable small-scale power supply; and
- stationary larger-scale power for industry or grid balancing.
While the first seems to be perpetually on the horizon (although Toyota, among others, is promising commercial fuel cell family vehicles in 2015; and fuel cell forklift trucks are popular); and the second exists, albeit in the form of an expensive but growing market; companies are making traction in the latter. Indeed, this is currently where the action is, in terms of shipments of products and megawatts installed.