Fuel Cells-Another Emerging Technology

Are fuel cells a potential disruptive technology for the global energy markets? Emerson’s Alan Novak, leader of the alternative energy industry team, explores this question in today’s guest post.

Emerson's Alan NovakIn previous posts, we have highlighted a variety of non-crude oil based transportation fuels, which are attractive due to their ability to drop in to the existing transportation fleet. We have also discussed the extremely disruptive impact of shale gas on the global energy market.

Another new technology, fuel cells, which convert hydrogen or natural gas directly to electricity, provide an alternative to both traditional transportation fuels (in electric drive vehicles) and traditional power generation systems while leveraging the abundance of shale gas.

The unique aspect of fuel cells is that they have the potential to impact both the power and transportation fuel markets, providing a route to electric vehicles without first generating the power in a traditional coal, natural gas or nuclear-fueled power plant.

Recent announcements by EBay and Daimler highlight the impact in disparate markets. EBay is planning to power a new data center completely with fuel cells from Bloom Energy.

Bloom Energy: How a Solid Oxide Fuel Cell Works

Source: DailyEnergyReport.com

Bloom uses a technology called a solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) which directly converts natural gas (CH4) into electricity. These cells operate at relatively high temperatures (800-1000 degC) and can directly reform natural gas in to the hydrogen required for operation.

At the same time, Daimler Motors (Mercedes Benz) recently announced the opening of a commercial production facility in Canada for its Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cells.
Proton exchange membrane fuel cell

Source: Wikipedia

The PEM cells require a pure hydrogen feed so natural gas would have to be re-formed (typically through a steam methane reformer) to produce CO and H2 for fueling.

Fuel Cells are a technology which could have a potentially disruptive effect on two major global energy markets, electric power and transportation fuels. Has this technology finally reached the point where it is economically viable? Only time will tell, but recent announcements indicate it may be moving forward.

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