Original Post Date: Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The concept of the fuel cell was first published in 1938 by Christian Friedrich Schonbein.  Based on this publication Sir William Grove invented the precursor of the fuel cell in 1839. The Grove Cell created current by applying two acids to zinc and platinum electrodes separated by a porous ceramic pot.  In 1842 Grove developed the first actual fuel cell which produced electricity with hydrogen and oxygen, much like many fuel cells in use today.

Fuel cells remained an intellectual curiosity until the 1960’s when the US space program identified a requirement for extended life batteries for which fuel cells seem to offer a promising solution.  The focus on green technologies has increased interest in consumer uses of fuel cells for transportation, residential and commercial power supply, emergency backup power and portable power supplies for consumer and battlefield applications.  Increased usage of any technology begs the question of how to address the costs associated with that technology. 

A fuel cell is an electrochemical cell which converts some fuel, usually hydrogen, into electric current.  It does this through a reaction between the fuel and an oxidant in the presence of an electrolyte.  The waste product of this chemical process is water and heat.  Fuel cells, unlike conventional batteries, consume reactant from an external source rather than one stored in the battery. They do require a continuous supply of fuel, but given that this supply is available, they will not run out of charge like a conventional battery. 

Because fuel cells require neither flame nor combustion to convert fuel to electricity, there is much hope that they will become a viable power source of the future as we try to reduce our carbon footprint.  Fuel cells are very reliable and less likely to be effected by the environment as some more conventional power delivery systems are.  Because of this they are being adopted in industries such as the telecommunications where outages are particularly problematic.  They are often considered for power generation in remote areas where energy from the grid is expensive and outages are frequent.  Because heat is a waste product of the fuel cell electricity generation process, micro combined heat and power systems are gaining popularity for residential and small business needs.  Other interesting uses of fuel cell power include material handling, backup power systems and uninterruptable power supplies.

Despite increases in the use of fuel cells, they continue to evade wide spread use because they are expensive.  Certainly significant progress has been made through increases in efficiency and improvements in manufacturing processes, but it is still more expensive, in most domains, to get electricity from fuel cells than from more conventional methods. According to a report from the Department of Energy in May 2010, high volume automotive fuel cell stack cost has been reduced from $275/KW in 2002 to $61/KW in 2009 and appear to be on track to reach the $30/KW goal by 2015.   The same report indicates a 24% increase in system power density for stationary fuel cells making it possible to reduce the fuel stack volume, weight and cost.

PRICE recently conducted a research effort using publically available data to develop cost estimating relationships for various types of power systems utilizing fuel cell technology. For a white paper describing this project and the resulting cost estimating models email info@pricesystems.com with the code word FUEL in the subject line.