Fuel cell technology: Future market application and technical overview

by Maureen Aylward

Fuel cell technology may play an increasing role in energy in the coming years. Zintro experts were eager to share their expertise, opinions, and forecasts with us.

Jeffery Freeman, a well-known alternative energy expert and environmental scientist, says that one of the broadest adoptions of fuel cell technology today is the use of proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell based power systems to replace lead-acid batteries used in forklifts. “In 2007 the Battelle Memorial Institute completed a study that identified this niche market as a clear near-term application,” he explains. “Operators of large distribution centers with fleets of 40 or more forklifts working in a multi-shift environment have an opportunity to enjoy the economies of scale that provide a positive lifecycle cost versus lead-acid batteries. Examples of these operators include Wal-Mart, Sysco Foods, Nissan, Coca Cola, FedEx and Nestle Waters.”

Dr. Ib Olsen is an authority in the field of advanced battery and fuel cell development, and his groundbreaking work in the battery and fuel cell technology field has awarded him more than 30 patents. In a blog post he says that PEM fuel cell makers may have found their first mass transportation product in the material handling / forklift sector. “Demonstration projects all show potential advantages over the existing lead-acid based solution. This bodes well for companies like Ballard, Hydrogenics, Nuvera, and Plug Power, if they can manage the growth with the market,” says Olsen. “The material handling market is attractive as the forklift fleet in the large warehouse typically is required to work at least two and often three shifts. Because of emissions, gasoline or propane powered units are not practical in the enclosed spaces, which traditionally has limited the energy choice to flooded lead acid batteries.” Olsen goes on to say those deficiencies include reduced forklifts performance, the need for three batteries plus spares for each forklift, significant space to charge batteries, and staff to change out the batteries. The opportunity “will require the [market] participants to scale-up up their production lines, which eventually also should increase reliability and reduce cost, opening the way for other applications,” Olsen says.

Pushpinder Puri is a broad-based chemical engineering research and development executive with proven accomplishments in the areas of membrane technology, fuel cells, Li-ion batteries, and microreactors. Here, he provides an overview of fuel cell technology as well as his opinion on the market implementation of the technology. “A fuel cell is a generic term used for a device which converts chemical energy to electrical energy. There are various means to do so. The most commonly known and well developed fuel cell is a hydrogen fuel cell or proton exchange membrane fuel cell developed in 1839 by Sir William Grove. The other types of fuel cells are direct chemical fuel cells, such as direct methanol fuel cell and solid oxide fuel cell. The later types of fuel cells are both cumbersome in design and less efficient than the PEM fuel cells. However, all type of fuel cells face serious challenges in their scale-up and economic viability,” says Puri.

Puri further elaborates his overview below:

Fuel for PEM fuel cell
PEM fuel cells require high purity (99.9%) hydrogen and should be free from all sulfur and other compounds, which can poison the catalyst used in the fuel cell. Hydrogen gas can be generated either by electrolysis of water or reforming the fossil fuels. The electrolysis process (which is reverse of fuel cell reaction) has no net benefit; rather, additional energy is required due to the inefficiency of the electrolysis, reverse electrolysis processes, and storage and transportation of hydrogen. The only cheap commercial source for hydrogen is reforming natural gas in which the methane molecule is reacted with water to produce hydrogen and carbon dioxide. For every molecule of methane consumed, one molecule of carbon dioxide is generated, just like in the combustion of methane. Thus, there is no “green” hydrogen. Furthermore, hydrogen gas needs to be compressed at very high pressure (up to 10,000 psi) to get desired energy density for hydrogen transportation. Both the compression and high pressure storage vessels are expensive. To date, there are no commercially viable technologies available for economic storage and transportation of hydrogen gas.

Materials needed to make fuel cells
PEM fuel cells require an ion-exchange membrane which permits the transportation of protons (hydrogen atoms as hydronium ions). The only stable material for this application is a perfluorinated polymer known as Nafion; this polymer is very expensive. Further, in order to convert a hydrogen molecule to hydrogen atom (as hydronium ion) and convert oxygen molecule to oxygen atom for them to react at low temperatures (up to 80C), precious metal catalysts such as platinum, palladium, ruthenium are needed. These metals are very expensive; it is probable that there is not enough supply of platinum to convert cars to fuel cell engines.

Economics of fuel cell
The cost and difficulty of the hydrogen generation and transportation, which is used as fuel in the PEM fuel cell, coupled with the cost of the membrane and catalyst, makes a fuel cell very expensive. In order for fuel cells to be economically viable, the fuel cell cost has to come down significantly and its life has to increase. A fuel cell has a high theoretical efficiency for the conversion of hydrogen to energy; the actual realized efficiencies are lower than those claimed. Some independent analyses have shown that the overall efficiency of a fuel cell is not very different than the well-to-wheel efficiency for gasoline engines.

According to Puri, he feels that PEM fuel cells are not environmentally sustainable and in their current state not practical and economically viable for mass use. “However, there are niche areas, such as stationary fuel cells with integrated hydrogen generation system for institutional or industrial power generation and as back-up power generation systems for remote and emergency applications,” he says. “Direct methanol fuel cell could find applications in small energy usage applications.”

By Maureen Aylward

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