While lithium-ion batteries are current champs of the electric vehicle market, fuel cells are beginning to come on strong. If that trend continues it raises some intriguing future scenarios, namely, fuel cells could eventually squeeze out Li-ion batteries altogether, or both technologies could co-exist to some degree, engaging in a continuous battle for market share. There is also a third possibility, which is that the EV of the future will be an ultra long-range, super quick-charging model using a fuel cell in combination with a battery, and that’s where a new fuel cell from the company Redox Power could come in.
The New Redox Power Fuel Cell
Fuel cells use a variety of fuels to generate electricity through a chemical reaction, rather than by combustion. The result is lower emissions, greater fuel efficiency, and lower operating noise than a typical internal combustion engine.
Just two little problems have prevented fuel cells from breaking into the mainstream: high cost, and high operating temperature.
Redox Power, a company spun out of long term research at the University of Maryland Energy Research Center, has been tackling both issues head on and last week it announced the impending launch of its first market-ready product, the PowerSERG2-80, aka the Cube, in 2014.
First let’s note for the record that the technology is not an EV product, at least not yet. The Cube is a modestly scaled, 25 kilowatt fuel cell about the size of a dish washing machine, designed to handle the energy load for a typical small business such as a gas station or a convenience-sized grocery store.
As for the innards, the Cube consists of stacks of solid oxide fuel cells, each about ten centimeters square. Solid oxide fuel cells use high tech ceramics as the electrolyte, which enhances efficiency and stability but presents a challenge in terms of temperature.
According to the Energy Research Center, typically a solid oxide fuel cell can reach operating temperatures up to 950 degrees Celsius. Redox Power has lowered that high mark to about 650 degrees, enabling the use of a relatively inexpensive steel platform compared to the special alloys required by higher temperatures (specs for the Cube list an operating temperature of 550 degrees). Operating performance also improves at lower temperatures, and Redox Power anticipates that with further tweaks it can get all the way down to 300 degrees.
The company’s future plans include offering the Cube at scalable configurations ranging from 5 kW for a typical home, and up to 80 kW and more for other sites. Redox Power has also hinted that a fuel cell EV is in the future, too.
Redox Power has hinted that a fuel cell for EVs is in its future, and that’s what brings to mind the idea of combining an EV with a fuel cell, which would act as a range extender. In terms of commercial viability that’s only going to happen when the cost of fuel cells and batteries drops, but here’s hoping.
About That Natural Gas Thing…
Despite their advantages we’ve been giving fuel cells the sustainability stinkeye for now, because conventional fuel cells rely on fossil fuels either directly in the form of natural gas or indirectly in the form of hydrogen, which requires an energy intensive manufacturing process.
For all its high tech bells and whistles, the bottom line in terms of fuel is that the Cube falls into the primitive fossil fuel category. Redox Power is banking on the low price of domestic natural gas to entice potential buyers off the electricity grid and into installing the Cube on their premises, using the existing gas transportation infrastructure.
That could prove problematic down the line, as the natural gas fracking industry is facing some serious financial issues as well as mounting evidence of significant environmental and public health threats including water contamination, earthquakes and the release of greenhouse gases from drilling sites.
With an industry shakeout, tighter drilling regulations and an easing of export restrictions threatening to exert upward pressure on natural gas prices, buyers might not be so eager to switch out of their current fuel situation.
On the other hand, for customers concerned about disruptions in the electricity grid, on site solutions like the Cube will still be attractive (let’s note that gas lines can also leak or break, but they are not nearly as vulnerable as overhead power lines).
There is also a green light at the end of the fuel cell tunnel. Renewable biogas and liquid biofuel are becoming viable options, and research is progressing apace on the use of renewable energy to power hydrogen manufacturing systems.
One especially intriguing example is a small scale, ultra low cost “artificial leaf” concept, which uses a palm-sized photoelectrochemical cell to release hydrogen from water. The device is being developed specifically to provide households in undeveloped regions with a safer, more sustainable alternative to kerosene and biomass.
Originally published on CleanTechnica. Reproduced with permission.