Fuel Cell Uses

The uses of fuel cells are generally divided into stationary, transport, portable, and micro. Because application dictates size, it also determines the type of fuel cell that can be utilized (PEMFC, PAFC, etc.). In addition to size, the operating characteristics of the fuel cell, such as temperature, fuel, and emissions all play an important role in the type of fuel cell for a given application.

Stationary

Stationary fuel systems are the most common. Over 2500 have been installed around the world, particularly in hospitals, nursing facilities, hotels, and schools. These systems generally provide supplemental power or backup assurance for critical areas. Stationary systems are also used to provide power for cellular towers, for landfills and wastewater treatment plants, and in breweries and wineries. In breweries, landfills, and wastewater treatment, the waste gas from fermentation can be harnessed to power stationary fuel cells, making these applications highly efficient.

Stationery fuel systems are among the most efficient of all fuel cell installations. They achieve a 40% fuel to electricity efficiency using hydrocarbon fuels. The efficiency is often increased through the process of cogeneration, which uses the waste heat of these systems to provide heating for the buildings and for hot water. This can reduce overall fuel costs for heating by 20 to 40%, which increases the overall efficiency of the system to as high as 85%.

Transportation

There are few commercial applications of fuel cells in vehicles. While almost all major automotive manufacturers have a fuel cell vehicle under development or in testing, most predict that it will be 2020 or later before these vehicles are commercially viable.

The focus of fuel cells for transportation has generally been on hydrogen fuel cells. The reason for this revolves around the operating characteristics of the cells, which includes relatively low cost to produce, low temperature operation, and zero emissions. Unfortunately, hydrogen presents several problems in terms of transport and storage, making it the major impediment to the large scale production of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

Currently, the most successful application of fuel cells and transport is for forklifts. Most forklifts cannot produce substantial emissions because they are used indoors, making them a key target for low emissions energy production. Prior to fuel cells, most forklifts utilized batteries, but maintenance and cost issues surrounding batteries opened this niche up to methanol and ethanol based fuel cells.

Portable Power

This is another niche application of fuel cells. Portable fuel cells are finding use in military applications, camping, and for remote power. Fuel cells are generally lighter and easier to transport than internal combustion generators. They are also quieter and produce fewer emissions.

Micro Power

This generally refers to consumer electronics. Several companies have demonstrated fuel cells that can power mobile phones for up to 30 days and laptops for greater than 20 hours. Micro fuel cells may become common in the near future to power everything from pagers to video recorders and portable power tools. Most of these fuel cells run on methanol, but some run on pure hydrogen derived either from the reaction between water and aluminum or from hydrolysis of water.