Fuel Cells Today: Early Market Applications and Learning Demonstrations (Text Alternative Version)
This is the text alternative transcript for the U.S. Hydrogen Program podcast titled: Fuel Cells Today: Early Market Applications and Learning Demonstrations. The media files can be accessed on the DOE Hydrogen Program Media Files page.
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Welcome to The Hydrogen Report. I'm Mike Weiner.
In this episode we're going to talk about fuel cells in use today - niche markets and learning demonstrations. People talk about fuel cells as a technology of the future, but you may be surprised to learn that a fuel cell future is closer than you think. When this episode is over, we hope you'll have a better understanding of the hydrogen and fuel cell technologies you may start seeing in your community.
We've covered the basics of hydrogen in previous editions of The Hydrogen Report. But to quickly review, hydrogen is an energy carrier that can be produced from a variety of abundant domestic resources and used to power anything from cars and buildings to laptops and video cameras and nearly everything in between. Fuel cells convert the chemical energy in hydrogen into electricity, with water and potentially useful heat as the only byproducts. They're pollution-free and have two to three times the efficiency of traditional combustion technologies. Given these advantages, you might wonder why hydrogen and fuel cells don't supply more of our energy needs. We talked with Dr. JoAnn Milliken of the DOE Hydrogen Program to learn more.
"The high cost and low durability of automotive fuel cells — as well as hydrogen on-board a vehicle — are challenges to commercialization in the transportation sector. But for certain early-market applications such as forklifts, emergency back up power, and portable power, which are smaller systems, have less stringent cost targets, and don't require the extensive hydrogen delivery infrastructure that vehicles do, fuel cells are starting to compete with traditional technologies. Their success will provide valuable user experience and support the development of a domestic supplier base and manufacturing capability. It will also demonstrate technology viability and raise public awareness, and offer a platform for deployment into larger automotive, consumer, and industrial markets. You can think of the adoption of these early technologies as laying the foundation for a national hydrogen infrastructure."
So what are some of the products available today and what are the specific benefits they offer over traditional technologies? Let's take a closer look...
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The U.S. Fuel Cell Council has identified more than 50 commercially-available fuel cell products, and that number continues to grow. For portable power, there are fuel cells for video cameras, emergency communication radios, and distributed wireless sensors for data collection. Because of their higher energy density, fuel cells can power these applications in smaller and lighter packaging and offer longer run times than batteries.
Fuel cells for stationary installations like radio towers and both wired and wireless telecom sites have demonstrated great promise for the emergency backup power market. Fuel cells at military bases, police stations, universities, hospitals, and other state-owned facilities across the country also provide excellent examples of how this technology can meet critical power needs. There is perhaps no greater example than New York City's Central Park Police Station. Remember the big blackout in August 2003? New York City, Cleveland, Detroit, and dozens of other cities in the northeastern U.S. and Canada suffered from the power outage. Without electricity for major services, the normal flow of traffic and life came to a screeching halt. But the Central Park Police Station, powered by a fuel cell, was one of the few buildings that remained unaffected.
Batteries and diesel generators have traditionally provided emergency backup power, but the fuel cells entering the market today offer several key advantages over these incumbent technologies. Dr. Milliken explains:
"Compared to batteries, fuel cells offer a longer, continuous run-time and they're more durable in harsh environments. Compared to diesel generators, fuel cells have lower maintenance requirements, can be monitored remotely, and have lower emissions. Fuel cells may cost more than traditional technologies, but when considering the full life cycle, fuel cells are a practical solution for backup power at hospitals, banks, critical data collection facilities, and other facilities that need a constant, uninterrupted power supply."
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Fuels cells are also emerging in another market — material handling equipment or lift trucks — the fork lifts and pallet trucks used at big plants and warehouses. Most lift trucks are powered by internal combustion engines or batteries, if used indoors.
While lead-acid batteries are a reliable and established technology, there are issues associated with voltage drop during battery discharge, downtime during exchanges, and extended cooling and charging time. Concerns over air quality are also driving users to look for alternatives to internal combustion engine-powered forklifts.
"For high-volume, 24/7, material handling operations that involve multiple shifts, fuel cells can be an attractive alternative. They provide constant power — they don't suffer performance drop-off during a shift and they can be rapidly refueled, eliminating the time needed to replace and charge batteries that can affect productivity. Hydrogen refueling can be located in areas formerly dedicated to battery charging equipment or distributed throughout a warehouse. Even with the significant capital investments, companies have calculated that fuel cell lift trucks for these high productivity operations have pay back periods of less than three years, together with their performance advantages."
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In addition to these applications, some of you may have seen fuel cell vehicle and hydrogen fueling station demonstrations out on the road. One of the ultimate goals of the DOE Hydrogen Program is to enable the widespread commercialization of fuel cell vehicles. Fuel cells available today for other niche applications form the first steps toward building the hydrogen infrastructure needed for the broad adoption of fuel cell technologies. Deployment in these markets also provides valuable experience in fuel cell manufacturing, facilitates the development and adoption of codes and standards for hydrogen, and raises public awareness of the technology and its benefits.
Projects such as the DOE Hydrogen Program Learning Demonstration are validating longer-term vehicle technologies. The program currently involves the work of four industry partner teams employing fuel cell vehicles and hydrogen fueling stations to collect data in both controlled test conditions and on the open road in a variety of geographic areas and climates. Although these technologies aren't quite market ready, deployment in real world environments helps government and the industry better prepare the infrastructure and the community for the long-term success of hydrogen.
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Hydrogen and fuel cell technologies are beginning to enter the market and learning demonstrations are spreading to various parts of the country. As you begin to see hydrogen and fuel cells in your community, stay ahead of the curve and learn more — or Increase your H2IQ — by visiting hydrogen.energy.gov. And be sure to listen for future episodes of the Hydrogen Report.