Fuel cells are not a “green” technology in themselves, but in theory fuel cells can be very efficient at converting chemical energy contained in a fuel into electricity. This means that up to two-thirds of the energy contained in a fuel (sometimes more) can be recovered as electricity, the rest being converted to heat.
Although the focus of recent fuel cell publicity has been on their use in cars, fuel cells can be used in a very wide range of applications where they can convert energy more efficiently than current technologies. The main obstacle to their uptake has been the high cost of fuel cell models with acceptable performance and durability.
The simplest fuel that can be fed into a fuel cell is hydrogen, as all fuel cells will readily react this fuel with oxygen (usually from the air) to produce electricity (water and heat are also released in the process). Other fossil (e.g. petrol, natural gas) and renewable (e.g.biodiesel, biogas) fuels can also be fed to fuel cells, either directly, or after being converted to hydrogen by a fuel processing device (also called a reformer).
Where fuel cells are used
Fuel cells are already in use today in a range of uses and will probably gain access to new markets in the near future as their costs come down: for instance, the focus of our Polymer Fuel Cell Challenge is to accelerate cost reductions and market uptake of polymer fuel cell technology.
In the medium term fuels cells are likely to be found replacing batteries in mobile devices such a laptops and phones, for home and commercial and for auxiliary power units for vehicles (used to produce the electricity needed onboard whether or not the vehicle is moving).
In the future, the automotive industry believes many road vehicles will be electric. They might store their energy in batteries, but fuel cells could also provide a convenient way of producing electricity on-board from a fuel – hydrogen or otherwise.
Polymer Fuel Cells Challenge
Carbon Trust launched the Polymer Fuel Cells Challenge (PFCC) in 2009 to help bridge the gap between UK polymer fuel cell technology developers and mass market applications.
Carbon Trust analysis indicates that by 2050, fuel cells could be powering up to 560 million cars - a third of all the cars on the road. Of various fuel cell types, polymer fuel cells offer the greatest potential carbon prize due to their flexibility to be used in a wide range of mass market applications. The main barrier to the wide scale deployment of polymer fuel cells is cost. Carbon Trust analysis conducted in 2009 indicated that a reduction of polymer fuel cell system cost to ~$37/KW could unlock carbon savings of 130-450Mt CO2 per year globally by 2030. The UK is home to leading polymer fuel cell technology developers, and is a significant supplier for conventional vehicles.
Read more in our report:
Polymer Fuel Cells – Cost reduction and market potential.
Polymer Fuel Cells Challenge approach
The PFCC is an innovation programme funded by the Department for Energy and Climate Change that aims to accelerate the commercialisation of breakthrough polymer fuel cell technologies. Its headline objectives are to:
- Reduce system cost to <$37/kW (for 500,000 units p.a.)
- Demonstrate a system (and fuel sub-system) at 5-10kW scale
- Secure a development and supply agreement with one major customer (e.g. vehicle manufacturer)
- Protect intellectual property and rights to exploitation
To achieve this, the following approach has been taken by the Carbon Trust:
- Identification of innovations needed to bring down costs
- Selection of best UK technologies with the help of experts
- Commercial structuring of investments to accelerate commercialisation, recoup capital and minimise costs
- Provision of business support and network to engage automotive companies
The first phase of the PFCC is intended to support teams to demonstrate proof of concept of component technologies, whilst the second phase is intended to demonstrate a system at 5-10 KW scale to meet the customer requirements needed to secure a development and supply agreement.
Today, there are four organisations/collaborations involved in Phase 1, either as full submission winners or research grant winners:
- Ilika Technologies
- ACAL Energy
- ITM Power
- Imperial College and University College London
The technologies that have been funded to date are:
- ACAL Energy's FlowCath system
- ITM Power's advanced membrane technology
- IC/UCL's Flexiplanar Stack technology
- An ACAL Energy/ITM Power joint demonstrator
- Ilika Technology's catalyst and core shell technologies
For an example of projects involved in the PFCC see the ITM Power and ACAL Energy case studies.