Fuel cells are usually associated with clever space tech or future eco-power units for cell phones and cars. But new advances have the technology taking on much bigger scale tasks like powering ships and the electrical grid. The environmental payoff could be huge.
Molten Carbonate Cells for Ships
Molten carbonate fuel cell technology has been in development for around 80 years—it involves high temperature chemistry to melt the reagents, unlike the more familiar alcohol or water-based fuel cells that you've probably heard more about.
Now the E.U.-funded MC WAP project has, after much investment and years of experimentation, achieved a breakthrough in the technology that makes it useful on a massive industrial scale. They've split the molten carbonate fuel cell into two key components—a fuel process module, and a fuel cells module. The cell module is essentially a chemical processing plant, which takes compressed air and a specially processed hydrogen-rich gas called syngas (which is produced from diesel oil in the fuel processing module). By combining the air and the gas under high temperature conditions among an array of electrodes at a temperature of hundreds of Celsius, electricity is produced.
So far the units are strong enough to power the auxiliary electrical systems aboard a ship—supplying power for navigation, communications, lighting and so on. But with further development the power output should be able to drive electrical motors that actually propel a ship. Ultimately the technology could develop enough power to drive supertankers across the ocean—with enormous environmental benefits: Because the system doesn't rely on combustion, there are less particulates, pollutants, and greenhouse gasses produced, and because it relies on diesel there's potential for the system to be installed in existing vessels without too much modification. And a lesser, good, too: In passenger ship applications, the engine uses no high-mass moving parts (unlike a diesel engine) so there are far fewer vibrations to disturb passengers.
Solid Oxide Cells for the Grid
There's a different kind of large-scale fuel cell tech has just achieved another breakthrough moment in Finland. There scientists have, for the first time, built a solid oxide fuel cell that's powerful and reliable enough to spit out electrical grid-scale electricity.
The trick here is to combine biogas inside a chunk of material, unlike than a liquid-based fuel cell, where the exchange of electrons between the fuel and oxygen in air results in the output of electricity. By scaling up the design of the cell, and adding in clever power-conversion units to transform the direct current output of the cell to alternating current needed to power a grid, the Finish team has built a 10kW planar solid oxide fuel cell that can power a national grid. The electrical output of the system is enough to power something like five apartments on a block. Meaning, to light all of Manhattan, you'd need ... well, never mind. But it's certainly a promising start.
To read more news on this, and similar stuff, keep up with my updates by following me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.