Fuel cells – energy on demand and storage

A novel fuel cell development offers the potential for powering homes and businesses.
Published: Tue 30 May 2017

While solar PV is the most advanced, practical and popular form of power for homes and businesses, it is not the only one. Small wind is another option, although its practicality is limited in most residential and many commercial situations.

A further option is fuel cells, which although not a new technology – the first fuel cell was developed in 1838 – are only now starting to find wider application. This new trend is being driven largely by the transport sector as it investigates hydrogen as an alternative to fossil fuel.

Power for homes

So far fuel cells have been used primarily for backup power in residential and commercial settings.

But that may change with a novel development under way at the University of Newcastle (UoN) in Australia together with the infrastructure solution provider Infratech Industries, which may soon be available in a unit about the size of a small fridge.

Claimed by the developers to be “the energy equivalent of the Swiss army knife,” the development is said to be able to provide both energy on demand as well as energy storage capabilities.

The system is named the Infratech CLES (chemical looping energy-on-demand system). It is based on a chemical looping air separation (CLAS) process in which thermochemical energy is produced by a (unnamed) “naturally occurring particle mixture” and used to drive turbines to produce electricity. This particle mixture needs to be renewed “periodically”.

In the energy on demand mode, the system is powered by gas, while in the storage mode it uses electricity stored during off-peak periods from renewables or the grid. Power can be provided for up to 12 hours in the storage mode.

Professor Behdad Moghtaderi, Director of the Priority Research Centre for Frontier Energy Technologies and Utilisation at UON’s Newcastle Institute for Energy and Resources (NIER) facility, who developed the now patented CLAS process, says the system shuttles particles through a cyclic process to achieve its outputs.

These outputs include not just electricity but also harnessable excess heat, which could be used for building heating, cooling or hot water heating. In addition, oxygen and hydrogen are produced, which offer the potential for owner use or for sale as an additional revenue stream.

Moghtaderi says the system’s ability to produce oxygen offered exciting new possibilities.

“Hospitals are an example of buildings that require a highly reliable supply of oxygen, power and climate control,” he comments. “Given the portability of the system and its ability to run off decentralised gas or electricity such as solar, it could also be an ideal solution for field hospitals. Another ideal application would be nursing homes where the oxygen could be circulated throughout the building to help support the health and wellbeing of elderly residents.”

To date the reference plant has been completed and following testing, will be relocated for commercial use. Thereafter, the focus will be on miniaturising the technology for individual household applications, which is expected to become available within 18 months.

Fuel cell challenges

In an interview, Rami Reshef, CEO of the fuel cell developer GenCell, says that initially developments in fuel cells didn’t live up to their promise, which tarnished their reputation.

But this is now changing, with a wide range of fuel cells available on the market, which are adapted to specific applications.

“Fuel cell manufacturers are now enjoying significant success with this technology in several markets. But from a reputation perspective, we are all rebuilding market confidence in the technology, utilising important proof points and customer endorsements to validate its success.”

He continues that the possibilities for fuel cell applications are almost endless - just about anywhere where energy is used. In addition to the automotive sector, some key use cases include industrial power generation and backup power for critical systems at utilities, telecoms, etc.

However, he believes that it will be another 12 to 24 months before fuel cells become mainstream in the market. And the biggest barrier is education.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there surrounding modern fuel cell technology, and when talking to prospects, our first job is often to correct what they think they know,” says Reshef. “We do that by explaining what we and others have done to overcome previous technology limitations to make modern fuel cells one of the cleanest, most reliable, robust and highly efficient power sources available. Our second job is to talk to them about hydrogen in general, as many businesses are not familiar with it.”

He concludes: “The good news is that the fuel cell business case is so compelling that after a little time invested to understand it, especially in businesses where the costs of downtime run into the millions, the cost of a fuel cell to minimise their impact becomes a very obvious and sensible decision.”

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