Thursday, October 21, 2010

"Cheap Diesel-Powered Fuel Cells"

From MIT's Technology Review:

A Norwegian company is developing silent diesel generators based on a new kind of fuel cell. Nordic Power Systems, which is making the generators for that country's military, has successfully tested a 250-watt solid-acid fuel cell developed by SAFCell, a spinoff from Caltech. The companies are now working on a 1.2-kilowatt system.

Power plants: These two prototype fuel-cell stacks from SAFCell generate electricity from hydrogen, even if it’s derived from diesel fuel and is contaminated with as much as 20 percent carbon monoxide. Both are made of 10 connected fuel cells. The small one--measuring three inches in diameter--generates 30 watts, and the larger one 200 watts.
Credit: SAFCell 

Solid-acid fuel cells are still at an early stage of development. But SAFCell says that they're simpler than conventional fuel cells, and the key components (such as the electrolyte) can be made from relatively cheap materials. The researchers developing the technology think it could be cheap enough to replace the turbines used in high-efficiency power plants. (The high cost of existing fuel cells limits them to niche applications, such as backup power.)

The new generators work by producing hydrogen gas from diesel in a process called reforming (the fuel is heated, but not combusted, and mixed with air and steam). The hydrogen is then fed into the fuel cell to make electricity. Unlike the fuel cells that have been tested in cars, the new ones can tolerate impurities, such as carbon monoxide, that are present in hydrogen made from diesel. In large-scale production, the new fuel cells could also be significantly cheaper than high temperature solid-oxide fuel cells, such as those being sold by Bloom Energy, because they operate at lower temperatures, and so don't require expensive heat-tolerant materials, says Calum Chisolm, SAFCell's CEO....MORE