First let’s look at ways we power the world…
Fuel-based Combustion – Scales but Inefficient
Large power plants use combustion to transform fuels like coal and natural gas to heat water that spin turbines and generators to create electricity that is sent over long distance to wall sockets. Fuels contains lots of energy… but there are too many conversion steps and more than half of the energy input is wasted before it reaches the end user.
Your car’s engine smashes hydrocarbon fuels and oxygen atoms together so they release energy to move pistons that eventually turn your wheels. Mechanical engines do their job well but they are inefficient, release CO2 and particulates – and have lots of moving parts that wear down and need to be repaired or replaced.
Solid State – Cleaner but does not Scale
PV Solar cells use sunlight to excite electrons inside silicon wafers. The electricity comes from silicon atoms not the sun’s photons. Solar panels are wonderful for many reason. They are solid state (no moving parts). While they require minerals that are extracted via mining, solar panel scaling is essentially a manufacturing paradigm (with a lot of policy support required). The main trade off with solar is that they are intermittent – only producing energy when the sun is shining. If we expect solar to play a major role in our energy future, it will require storage solutions to scale and integrate into our lives.
Batteries store electrical energy. They are efficient when you consider energy input vs output, but they struggle to store large volume and over long periods of time.
Fuel cells offer the best of these energy systems…!
First, let’s get the technical definition out of the way: fuel cells are solid-state electrochemical energy conversion devices that combine hydrogen-rich chemical fuels (natural gas; hydrogen; propane; ammonia) with oxygen to create electricity, heat and steam.
There are several types of fuel cells based on their electrolyte and operating temperature (PEM, SOFC, DFC, MFC).
They Transform Our Notion of Power Plant
Think of fuel cells as a ‘power plant’ or an ‘engine’ inside-a-box. They give us all the benefits of the chemical energy locked inside fuels. Fuel cells are clean because they convert fuels electrochemically not via combustion.
If you use hydrogen as a fuel there are no emissions. If you use natural gas (methane) emissions are much lower when compared to natural gas used in a large central power plant. Inside the fuel cell energy is converted in a single reaction without the need for water (steam) or long distance wires. You can convert the fuel onsite and capture the byproduct of heat. They are not simply more efficient in the energy input vs output – but in our ability to locate fuel conversion closer to end use.
Fuel cells help make our natural gas resources cleaner. The technology also creates economic incentive to the natural gas industry to become a more hydrogen oriented in their framing of ‘gas’.
Captures All the Good of Manufacturing
Fuel cell have no moving parts. Less need to worry about worn out pistons or turbines. They are durable and low maintenance.
Fuel cells can scale up or down in size. This modular design architecture gives us versatility across a range of applicatio ns from handheld portable power, to electric vehicles and to megawatt sized power parks.
Similar to solar panels, fuel cells costs reductions come with volume production. It is a manufacturing process based experience curve. Costs drop as volumes increase.
Are we really about to see Fuel Cells in the real world?
In recent years the case for fuel cells has made progress. Improved industry learning curves and falling production cost curves, and increased demand for electricity solutions.
In the 2020s, growth will be slow and steady as fuel cells find their place in the global energy sector. The next five years will be an exciting phase as fuel cells finally coming to market in a meaningful way.
Five application areas for fuel cells include:
1) Distributed Energy Resources (Microgrids, Power Parks and CHP)
The utility industry term ‘DER’ Distributed Energy Resources – includes energy storage (e.g. batteries), demand side reduction (e.g. efficiency) and energy production (e.g. solar rooftop and fuel cells).
Fuel cells allows us to convert fuel (natgas; hydrogen; biofuels) onsite into electricity and heat without relying on central power plants. Because fuel cells generate heat as a byproduct of the chemical reaction they can be used in ‘CHP’ applications (Combined Heat & Power) letting users capture the heat for hot water or heating systems while also getting electricity.
Japan and Germany are using policy levers to encourage early adoption for residential to commercial and factory settings. U.S. utilities are exploring ways to meet demand through larger MW fuel cell ‘power parks’. Around the globe other early adopters of smaller energy appliances also include telecommunication stations, ports, data centers, logistic hubs, medical facilities and factories.
Learn More about Distributed Power Applications (Coming Soon!)
2) Electric Vehicles (Fuel-based EVs & Range-Extenders)
‘Electric’ vehicles refer to electric motors, not the battery. Despite most media attention on plug-in battery electric vehicles, the dominant view within the auto industry is that fuel-based electric vehicles offer more advantages on cost-to-mass, performance and up-time via faster refueling. The end game for EVs is likely the ‘integration of battery and fuel cells’.
Automakers from Germany, Japan, UK and Korea have all made clear signals for a near term future of fuel-based electric vehicles. Toyota, Honda and Hyundai have commercial FCEVs in the market today.
Plug-in vehicles will continue to drive the first generation growth of EV sales, but do not expect batteries to dominate the transportation market in the future. Fuel cells are on track for their long-game disruption of the combustion engine. This multi-decade long transition in the transportation sector has begun and the next five years could prove to be an exciting early stage of growth for FCEVs.
Beyond passenger vehicles which account for 25% of oil use in the transportation market, fuel cells are being uses in warehouses for materials handling equipment (e.g. forklifts), maritime (e.g. large passenger ships and tankers), UAVs/drones, long haul trucks and trains.
Learn More about Fuel Cells in Transportation (Coming Soon!)
3) Power to Gas: Helping to Scale Renewables
Fuel cells can be integrated into renewable power systems to help scale how much we store (e.g. capacity) and how long we can store it (e.g. duration). Power to Gas is an approach that converts large amounts of excessive wind and solar production into hydrogen using an electrolyzer that splits water in hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen can be stored for later use – converted in a fuel cell that feeds the utility grid. Or the hydrogen can be mixed with natural gas (methane) and fed into existing gas pipelines.
Learn More about Power to Gas (Coming Soon!)
4) Portable Power (Rechargers)
Fuel cells can be scaled down in size to the size of a cell phone, tool box or roller luggage.
At these sizes, fuel cells become portable power plants that bring reliable, clean energy without any noise or moving parts. Portable power units are currently sold as ‘battery rechargers’ but will likely emerge as an independent product in the years ahead. Expect to see fuel cells at construction sites, and in your back pocket.
Learn More about Fuel cells in Portable Power Solutions (Coming Soon!)
5) Embedded Power
The most disruptive application for fuel cells would be embedding them inside consumer electronic devices. In this future, we would no longer ‘plug in and recharge’ our portable devices (phones, tablets, laptops). Instead, we would refuel them with a hydrogen-rich fuel cartridge (e.g. solid state, liquid fuel) that we can purchase on retail shelf.
Learn more about Embedded Fuel Cells (Coming Soon!)