With over 2,000 attendees at the November 2003 Fuel Cell Seminar in Miami Beach, Florida, the world’s largest gathering of the fuel cell community had opportunity to visit 212 exhibits and select, from a dual track, presentations on the current state-of-the-art fuel cell technology for portable, stationary and transportation applications. Such presentations centered on research, development and demonstration, and also reviewed advancements in producing, transporting and storing hydrogen with various feedstock (e.g. natural gas and methanol). In addition, attendees were invited to view and dialogue with presenters in 212 poster sessions.
The keynote speakers provided an energetic atmosphere where attendees reflected on past accomplishments, reviewed the realities of today and the considered future challenges, not only in the area of technology, but also in marketing a new paradigm of a form of energy which will be needed for global applications in establishing a greener and cleaner environment as well as energy independence.
U.S. Government Funding
Mark Williams, conference chair from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), opened the conference on a positive note stating that U.S. fuel cell technology was currently funded at a record level (about $200 million) for research and development and that these monies have resulted in supporting projects with successful prototypes and demonstrations. He noted that the U.S. government’s commitment would continue to provide an additional 500 million in the next few years.
U.S. commitment was reinforced by David Garman, Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. He stated that the government has and will continue to provide dollars and staff expertise, the greatest challenge lying ahead was to get the public informed and excited about the future of fuel cells, and ultimately, a hydrogen infrastructure necessary for a hydrogen economy. He said this goal was magnanimous in comparison with remarkable achievements in the past such as the Manhattan Project which produced the atomic bomb or the Apollo project which put a man on the moon. Ultimately, fuel cells and the success of utilizing hydrogen in our every day life would be dependent on consumer choice, not government choice.
Another keynote by Hiroyuki Watanabe, Senior Managing Director of Toyota Motor, reinforced the global environmental need and challenge to provide greener exhaust, lower CO2 emissions and improved ambient air quality. He was pleased to express Toyota’s pride in establishing an image where a green environment was a priority and noted Toyota’s direction of already having 150,000 hybrids being driven around the world. He, too, talked about a needed paradigm shift to make fuel cells a reality. To emphasize his point, he reminded the attendees that it took 27 years for the gasoline driven auto to gain public acceptance after having had the 5,000 year old cart as basic vehicle for transportation. Implicit questions remain as to long how it will take (and under what circumstances) fuel cells, hydrogen and its ancillary infrastructure to dominate global commercialization.
In another keynote, JoAnn Bayer of United Technologies traced the U.S. government’s role in providing assistance for fuel cells/hydrogen development. In her historical review, she reminded attendees that it was only 30 years ago that hydrogen was mentioned in a sentence in an energy bill, and today, it is seen in the title of an energy bill. That is political progress in policy for fuel cells/hydrogen. She also noted a need for a shift in the consumers’ thoughts about hydrogen; she said the concept needs to be linked with the word, fuel, not just the word, gas.
Opportunities for the Electric Power Industry
Hank Courtright from The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) viewed the electric power industry in the U.S. as a group looking for new direction. Today, this industry is plagued with dysfunctional wholesale markets, regulatory issues which are uncertain and all-time-low capital investments. But, on the bright side of the coin, he envisions this industry has having opportunities - to transform itself with digital control of networks, to integrate communications and electricity, to include distributed resources with a robust portfolio of clean energy enhanced with fuel cells and photovoltaics, and to communicate with two-way energy information portals. Reaching this goal will require dollars, hard work and support. Input from the federal, state and local governments, the technical community and policy makers will all be required to reach the ultimate goal of satisfying the customer with a reliable, safe, clean and cost effective source of electricity. He applauds the fuel cell researchers, scientist and advocates for working on this goal.
At this meeting, the world’s leading fuel cell organizations (The U.S. Fuel Cell Council, Fuel Cell Commercialization Conference of Japan, Fuel Cells Canada and World Fuel Cell Council/Fuel Cell Europe) entered into a cooperative agreement (memorandum of understanding - MOA) designed to advance commercialization of fuel cells worldwide. This agreement covers activities in such areas as technical cooperation, information exchange, advocacy, harmonized product specifications and safety standards. The signers for this newly formed group, comprised of more than 300 businesses, research institutions and others interested in fuel cells and hydrogen) made this collaborative statement , “The industry is internationalizing. Governments are negotiating multilateral programs to promote fuel cells and hydrogen. Our collaboration can help shape a single worldwide industry view on the key challenges to commercialization, and their solution.”
Solid Oxide Fuel Cells (SOFC)
If the measure of a fuel cell technology was based on the quantity of subjects presented, it would point to solid oxide as a major player since a full track on Wednesday an another half day on Thursday were devoted to them. Because SOFCs operate at high temperatures without noble metal catalysts, they are highly valued in large stationary applications. Feasibility has shown excellent performance in such systems provided by Siemens Westinghouse in a 100 kWe unit which provided 20,400 hours of operation and another with 16,600 hours. Electrical efficiencies are in the range over 50%. When that is coupled with exhaust heat recovery as a cogen(erative) systems, total performance of SOFCs gets into the range of over 80%. They function with available natural gas and are being scaled down to the 5 kW range.
The Solid State Energy Conversion Alliance (SECA) is an initiative by the Department of Energy (DOE) to accelerate deployment of commercial 3 to 10 kW SOFCs . Based on both laboratory and field experience, improvements in reliability and efficiency are needed for corrosion processes, seal development, plus improved cathode and anode materials. There is interest in facilitating performance with materials which operate down to 650 0C.
All these needed improvements are being balanced by efforts to bring costs of SOFC systems down. As is the general case with changes, cost reductions bring new reliability problems.
Presentations strongly supported planar construction as an alternative to the tubular configurations which have established high reliability and long operating time. Planar configurations offer scalability and system size advantages but will need to produce successful operating results while proving the ability to reduce stack costs.
To achieve greater electrical efficiency, operation at higher pressures up to four atmospheres is being pursued. Pressurization is provided by a direct fired gas turbine, making it a hybrid system and creating a myriad of problems in the systems for the fuel cell manufacturer. Existing turbine technology does not exactly fit the needs of fuel cell hybrids and the methods for designers to work together to solve the systems problem is in need of improvement. Present attitudes of the fuel cell developers is to first focus on solving fuel cell problems, and when these problems are solved, adding final configurations of turbines can then be addressed. It makes a lot of sense; because in the early stages of development, solutions could be implemented which later might be discarded along with the funds to produce the discarded approaches.
The work in SOFCs involves research from the materials levels to systems configurations, indicating that an optimum SOFC has yet to emerge. Because challenges still exist, the next few years will be devoted to consolidating results and establishing confidence in reliability.
Standing back form SOFC details, one can see how it fits into today’s requirements. Large quantity hydrogen sources and distribution are not available for large continuous power generation, but natural gas still is available, although it is rising in cost as oil prices escalate. Using natural gas fueled SOFCs allow simpler hardware than PEM FCs, but the higher temperature requires lengthy start-up times and high temperature considerations. To gain greater electrical efficiency with pressurized systems takes away some of the configuration simplicity advantage of SOFCs. Due to the large combination of problems to be solved in both efficiency and reliability increases, it may be a decade or more before significant contributions will be seen form SOFC’s.
While there are a variety of fuel cells receiving attention in many electrical generating roles, none is more generally accepted as being able to make it as a profitable business venture than the Direct Methanol Fuel Cell (DMFC.) The first reason for its anticipated success is that it has an open field of market need and competition. Batteries are chemistry limited to provide run times in portable electronics such as computers, cell phones and PDAs. Only fuel cells can provide the limitless electricity from an easily swapped methanol container. It is not that the DMFC will have to carve out a market niche, the whole market is impatiently waiting. Only reliability problems and pricing will limit the role of DMFCs.The second desirable feature of the DMFC is its ability to be fabricated in a small, simple configuration, because of a lack of need for fuel reforming. Its very mature, The ‘D’ in DMFC makes it simple.
The next advantage is fuel availability; the DMFC does not have to wait for the hydrogen economy to appear. It eats methanol and methanol is readily available around the planet. Of the total present capacity to produce methanol, it is estimated that 10 million tons are not used. While methanol is catalytically synthesized form natural gas, it can also be obtained form renewable resources such as landfill gas and wood biomass. Methanol is here today and will be widely available to future generations.
The market is waiting and the fuel is available for the taking, but the DMFC is maintaining its status of ‘not yet ready for prime time.’ A presenter from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which has been researching DMFCs for about two decades, stated “performance durability may be the single most important issue for direct Methanol fuel cells...” Methanol crossover from the anode to the cathode through the proton exchange membrane degenerates cell performance in a few hundred hours. Short term performance loss is caused by surface oxidation of the platinum catalyst. Longer term degradation comes from cathode water absorbing properties, loss of ionomers and ruthenium crossover. All these problems have kept the DMFC from realizing its technological and market potential.
But, if the information presented by MTI Microfuel Cells and others at the portable DMFC sessions is on target, products may be deliverable either in a military application or pioneering commercial products soon. To improve the ‘energy density’ of stored fuel, MTI has found a method for using 100% methanol. The perceived problem of safety related to a fuel tank rupture might be considered as physiologically dangerous since vaporized methanol can neither be seen nor smelled by the human. Sufficient exposure to methanol results in irreversible blindness. Methanol manufacturers and the Methanol Institute are confident that safety testing will provide safe containers for any concentrations of methanol. BD will be filing follow on stories of this progress, since information about user safety of batteries, fuel cells and photovoltaics is our first concern.
PEM Fuel Cell R & D
Two fuel cell methodologies, Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) and SOFC carried the majority of technical offerings at the seminar. A major difference is that PEM systems operate at lower temperatures. When the term ‘high-temperature’ is used with PEM, the domain is around 120 0C to 150 0C. When ‘low temp’ is used with SOFCs, 600 0C is a reasonable number.
The lower temperature range of PEM FCs makes them attractive for automotive operation where short start-up time is required. Beyond the temperature compatibility, PEM FCs are the basis of micro fuel cells using direct methanol and can be scaled up to 150 kW stationary units. PEM FCs are delicate in handling small amounts of CO (which poison the cell) and methanol crossover which degrades cell performance.
A lack of representation by the auto companies was noticeable. Toyota showed its latest FCHV-4 fuel cell SUV which uses the body form the popular Highlander. Papers or specifications on the SUV were not available, but then Toyota prides itself on internal fuel cell research, development and leadership in having roadworthy demonstration vehicles.
PEM sessions were focused on the stationary applications, but detailed materials research presented could be applied to both the stationary and transportation PEM FCs. As with other fuel cell directions, both reliability and price reductions are the challenges which involve the new technologies which include nanotechnology materials, fluoropolymers and vacuum plasma deposition.
Beyond the R &D laboratories, there are production PEM fuel cells such as those offered by Plug Power, Inc. which will deliver 2.5 to 5 kWe natural gas prime power generators and standby 5 kWe gaseous hydrogen units with output Voltage of 48 Vdc tailored to the telephone backup applications.
Continuing with the stationary product line, Nuvera sells a 3.5 kWe with 6 kW thermal natural gas powered Stationary PEM fuel cell which appears to be targeted for base load continuous service, but also could be the heart of a backup system.
Moving on to the portanble stationary market, a 1 kW unit using hydrogen gas fuel is offered by Arcotronics. Less portable is a similar line of modular hydrogen fueled FCs which range from 2.5 to 10 kW and can be configured to provide 12 to 50 Vdc or 110, 230 Vac.
While Detroit does not offer a fuel cell powered auto, the consumer can order from Anuvu Incorporated a proprietary PEM fuel cell powered hybrid station wagon auto or two door pick up truck. The truck is a bit pricy at five dollars under the magic one hundred thousand dollar mark, but one could also purchase a costal and harbor multi passenger boat with hybrid fuel cell power also built by Anuvu to augment the ‘fleet.’
The most creative application of fule cells to transportation either has to go the Anuvu boat or to Kurimoto, Ltd. for their fuel cell powered wheel chair. Using canisters with hydrogen stored in metal hydrides, the chair will operate for up to 10 hours with speeds of up to 6 km/hr.
In the sky, the fuel cell world was set back by the crash of the fuel cell and battery powered Helios built by Aerovironment. Since funding has to come from NASA for another prototype aircraft, the preoccupation with Shuttle safety has kept the replacement from being constructed, but hopes are high that a contract will soon be awarded for the craft.
While the big picture of fuel cells presented at the 2003 Fuel Cell Seminar shows an industry very much in the formative stage, the anticipation and excitement mixed with a very scientifically founded methodology is driving it to new levels which ever so slightly is beginning to make a mark on the world.