In recent years NFCRC’s focus has been in researching fuel cells. Despite the fixation of the center on the future of energy, according to Kathy Haq, director of outreach and communications at the NFCRC, fuel cell technology has existed for decades.
“Basically, it sat around as a scientific curiosity for more than a hundred years … and in the ’50s and ’60s the American Space Program through NASA started looking at the potential for putting fuel cells as a power source in manned spacecraft,” Haq said.
Fuel cell technology laid dormant until the ’80s, when gas crises and tensions in the oil-rich Middle East region caused scientists to start investigating energy solutions to the finite supply of fossil fuels. These fossil fuels power the approximate millions of combustion engines around the world.
“[Combustion] produces 80 percent of our world’s energy, whether it’s automobiles or electric power generation,” said Scott Samuelsen, director of the NFCRC and professor in the Henry Samueli School of Engineering.
Samuelsen continued, “Combustion can only be improved so much, and there needs to be an alternative to provide the energy that we all depend upon in a more environmentally sensitive way, and that led us 10 years ago to establishing the National Fuel Cell Research Center as a center to accelerate the development and deployment of fuel cells.”
As fuel cell technology has progressed, the meaning of the term “fuel cell” has also developed. Popular media has made fuel cells synonymous with “hydrogen-powered” and “fuel-cell cars,” but there are many types of fuel cells that are not limited to the next generation of automobiles.
A fuel cell, in essence, separates a component such as natural gas or hydrogen into electrons and waste product. The electrons then travel to a converter to be converted to electricity.
There are several types of fuel cells, but one of the most common is the Proton Exchange Membrane, which places an anode and a cathode in a sandwich formation, within a membrane, with a catalyst resting between these two parts.
Anodes and cathodes are electrical conductors that generate electrical charges. Through these parts the PEM fuel cell sends compressed hydrogen in a tube through the cell: the hydrogen hits the catalyst and breaks into protons and electrons and the electrons travel to the electric motor.
Each single fuel cell is a tube or plate-shaped component that is stacked together with identical fuel cells, which simultaneously run hydrogen through its system with secondary reactions to convert the waste products into harmless carbon dioxide and water.
“If we can come up with a renewable way to produce hydrogen, these will be completely sustainable technologies for producing power,” Haq said.
However, hydrogen does not occur naturally on earth and must be taken from natural gases, water, coal or liquid fuels. Additionally, the catalysts are often metals that are expensive to produce, such as platinum.
The versatility of fuel cells will enable them to power many of our next-generation powered devices.
“Fuel cells are the first technology we’ve experienced in engineering that can do a good job from being very, very small to being very, very large. Most of our power-generation systems are limited to certain ranges of operation where they work well,” Samuelsen said.
This means fuel cells may be used to power phones, laptops, large buildings and central power plants in the near future. Furthermore, scientists are experimenting with extremely small fuel cells to be used inside the body, which will power pacemakers and other physiological applications. Yet, perhaps most important is the use of fuel cells to power buildings. Due to the success of fuel cells in this capacity, fuel cells may also be used in the next two decades to power homes.
“We have over 20 years of deployment of stationary fuel cells, with never an incident of a safety problem. … There’s almost 20 megawatts of fuel cells deployed throughout California [such as] the Sheraton Hotel in San Diego, Cal State Northridge [and] a waste water treatment plant in Santa Barbara,” Samuelsen said. “[Stationary fuel cells] operate on natural gas, they can also operate on digester gases [generated through] treatment of waste water sewage [and] landfill gases. … We’re capturing those gases today to make power.”
Despite the success of fuel cells, there have been concerns in regard to their use in compressed hydrogen used to power automobiles. However, according to Samuelsen, NFCRC has developed methods to prevent such dangers.
“We had to engineer systems that minimized that danger … fuel cell [automobile technology] has reached a level of maturity where that vehicle is safer today than the gasoline car that it’s replacing,” Samuelsen said.
When gasoline automobiles have accidents, the gasoline tank sometimes ruptures and gasoline pools around the car. When it ignites, the car is incinerated.
However, hydrogen is kept in a gaseous form and is highly compressed, so when the tank is ruptured, the fuel escapes and diffuses into the air.
Although the NFCRC received the first fuel cell cars in the world in 2002 from major car companies like Toyota and Honda, and currently has its own hydrogen refueling station, commercial fuel cell vehicles are not yet available.
“We do not yet have hydrogen fuel cell vehicles being deployed commercially, that’s still five to 10 years away,” Samuelsen said.
In the meantime, professors and graduate students at NFCRC will continue to focus on developing the methods that will power the world of tomorrow through improving fuel cell technology.
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