The adoption of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies is gathering pace as the clean energy benefits of renewable technologies help to secure a low carbon future for communities and businesses alike.
As the Government pushes ahead with its aim of delivering a low carbon economy by the middle of the century, the race is on to realise the potential of renewable technologies to underpin the energy resources needed in the future.
It is generally accepted that fossil fuel reserves are in decline with natural gas, oil and coal having been at the centre of the world’s industrial growth over the past 100 years. This fact, along with a requirement to tackle climate change issues, has ensured that alternative and renewable energy technologies have come to the fore in recent times.
Great strides are being made in the ongoing development of renewable energy from natural resources such as sunlight, wind, rain, tides and geothermal heat, and current estimates indicate that about 16% of global final energy consumption now comes from renewable sources. This figure is set to grow.
A key area of renewable technology that is starting to have real impact is that of fuel cell application and the increasing use of hydrogen fuel cells across a number of industrial sectors - in particular transport. Indeed, the recent opening of the country’s first public hydrogen filling station in Swindon for hydrogen powered passenger cars is testimony that hydrogen-based technology is now on the map.
Fuel cells are described by the Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association (HFCA) as a ‘solid-state electrochemical power conversion device that converts the chemical energy of a fuel into electrical energy’. A fuel cell combines hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, heat and water. Cells are often compared to batteries as both convert the energy produced by a chemical reaction into usable electric power. However, the fuel cell will produce electricity as long as a fuel such as hydrogen is supplied, so never losing its charge.
In this context hydrogen has been chosen as a prime example of the kind of clean fuel that can be used to generate energy in cell application. Hydrogen production has been in place for decades and has been utilised safely in a wide range of applications across the food, metal and chemical industries. The ability now also exists to generate hydrogen from renewable sources such as wind and solar energy, and this brings with it a zero carbon footprint. In addition, through precombustion technology, the capture of clean hydrogen is also possible from other sources such as bio-mass, waste and natural gas.
Attention is now turning to the application of hydrogen as a fuel source of choice for the growing fuel cell market. It is currently estimated by the HFCA that the global fuel cell market could be worth over $26 billion by the end of this decade, and the association believes that over 100 UK companies are currently highly active in fuel cell and hydrogen commercial applications, helping to generate green manufacturing jobs also.
As for applications, fuel cell technology, including hydrogen applications, offers a range of benefits to a number of markets. The most significant long-term market is that of powering passenger cars in the transport sector. Indeed, nearly all major automotive manufacturers are at some stage on the journey to commercialising a fuel cell electric vehicle, with the recent launch of the Nissan Leaf a prime example. The ongoing issue for full implementation of electric vehicles is the requirement for a substantial hydrogen refuelling infrastructure and the opening of the filling station in Swindon this year is part of a sustained effort to grow the infrastructure needed for mass participation.
Fuel cell technology is also finding application as a clean energy source for commercial and residential power markets such as distributed generation and combined heat and power systems, remote power for rural and non-grid connected sites to replace batteries and generators, as well as for the provision of back-up power for critical services.
The University of Wolverhampton is involved in the development of a new and inexpensive approach to fuel cell manufacturing supporting the creation of a new range of low cost alkaline circulating electrolyte (ACE) fuel cells. Led by consultant, Nick Abson, the project has completed research into advanced manufacturing techniques to enable the range to be produced more competitively and making them affordable and accessible for community power needs. The fuel cells, once manufactured, will be targeted to supply low cost electricity to communities and industry, with estimates showing that the electricity supplied will be at half the cost of that from the National Grid.The fuel cells are currently undergoing final testing and it is anticipated that they will be manufactured in 2012.
It seems the potential of fuel cells is limitless highly suitable for portable power use as a battery replacement for electronics such as mobile phones or laptops. It could not only revolutionise static power generation, but also prove invaluable as a portable power solution of the future.