Encouraging signs for fuel cells

The US Army Tank Automotive Research, Development & Engineering Center (TARDEC) and GM are jointly testing fuel cells. Photo credit: General Motors

The US Army Tank Automotive Research, Development & Engineering Center (TARDEC) and GM are jointly testing fuel cells. Photo credit: General Motors

Last week we took a look at fuel-cell vehicles and concluded that, although they represent an exciting future prospect, they are unlikely to make a big impact any time soon. When we turn to non-vehicle fuel cell energy storage, the signs are much more promising, as we’ll see in this concluding part of our analysis.

One of the key stumbling blocks in the adoption of fuel-cell vehicles (FCVs) is the chicken-and-egg conundrum of investment in a vast refueling infrastructure, even in the Europe where there are schemes in the Nordic countries, Germany and the UK. Indeed, the European Union has stated that lack of a viable infrastructure stands in the way of widespread FCV adoption.

In many cases, these infrastructure initiatives see a range of state and corporate actors coming together, such as the six partners in the German ‘H2 Mobility’ initiative: Air Liquide, Daimler, Linde, OMV, Shell and Total. H2 Mobility is also fairly typical in that all the participants have really done so far is sign an agreement in principle for a plan to build a Germany-wide hydrogen refueling network.

In May this year, the US Department of Energy and various auto companies launched the H2USA hydrogen infrastructure project, with a very similar brief to its German counterpart. This week, the Welsh government has backed ITM Power with a GBP£1m grant to develop a hydrogen refueling infrastructure. 

Stationary fuel cells move forward

The non-FCV fuel cell market, on the other hand, seems to be in a process of rapid acceleration, to the extent that investors are returning to companies that seemed doomed after the initial hype over the much-reported and little-seen ‘hydrogen economy’ subsided some years ago. And whilst it’s an ongoing joke in the industry that few fuel-cell focused companies have yet to make a profit, positive signs are there for all to see.

Indeed, Navigant Research reports that revenues from stationary fuel cell sales increased 55% last year to USD$1.3bn. Some manufacturers, such as Ballard Power Systems, have consciously moved away from the automotive market in order to capitalise on real, rather than speculative, market growth.

Data centre gold rush

There has been a flurry of blue-chip investing in fuel-cell powered facilities, such as eBay’s data centre near Salt Lake City in Utah. The facility will use Bloom Power Server fuel cell technology with the aim of reducing carbon emissions by around half. This is no flash in the pan for Bloom, which made its first substantial sale to Google in 2008 and has notched up Wal-Mart and AT&T as notable clients.

Importantly, perhaps, eBay has said the switch to fuel cells has been motivated by the need to reduce the risk of outages from the centre’s grid connection, as well as to boost its green credentials. Microsoft has also expressed its desire to become less dependent on an aging, and in some cases ailing, grid.

With this in mind, the software behemoth has invested in a pilot fuel-cell powered data centre in Wyoming, with plans to roll out more if the biogas-powered fuel cells can deliver. In July, GigaOm reported that Equinix installed a fuel cell at its FR4 data centre, which will be able to generate 800MWh of electricity yearly and 600MWh of heating. It was installed by German project developer N2telligence and the fuel cells were provided by Fuji Electric.

An interesting angle of this project is that the nitrogen produced as a by-product of this particular type of fuel cell can be used to fight fires, if one should break out in the facility.

Land of the rising solar

Fuel cell manufacturers are looking East for further sales. With Japan’s nuclear industry lurching from disaster to mishap, the country is looking to alternative resources, including solar power backed by fuel cells, according to the Wall Street Journal and Hydrogen Fuel News. The latter claims that about 50% of new homes built by one major Japanese developer are now powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

South Korea is also betting heavily on renewable energy and fuel cell technology, with Fuel Cell Energy building what is billed to be the world’s largest fuel cell park in the country.

Big plans in Pennsylvania

Meanwhile, back in the US, GEI Global Energy recently announced an agreement with Owl Eco Group to build a 100MW fuel cell power plant in Pennsylvania to take advantage of the nearby Marcellus shale natural gas fields. Not only would this be the largest fuel cell installation in the world but also would represent nearly 45% of global revenue from the fuel cell stationary sector in 2012, according to Navigant Research.

But which gas?

We’ve mentioned methane, shale gas and hydrogen as fuels that are used in fuel cell technology, and the benefits of each are an issue we will return to in a later article. At present, diversity is the norm. To give just two examples, whilst General Electric is working on a power system that combines its own fuel cell technology that runs on natural gas, General Motors is engaged in a project to further develop the hydrogen option with help from the US Army.

Whatever gas, or combination of gasses, ends up powering fuel cells, the infrastructure has to be there to deliver it. With that in mind, we were intrigued by a report in The Nikkei that Kawasaki Heavy Industries is planning to build the first ocean-going ships to carry liquefied hydrogen, with a demonstration test scheduled by 2017, when liquefied hydrogen will be transported from Australia to Japan.

It could be just the sort of thing needed to keep fuel cell ambitions afloat.

Written by Mike Stone

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