Balancing power needs using fuel cells

Emerging sector will play major role in meeting tomorrow's energy challenges

By Morand Fachot

FCs (fuel cells) convert the chemical energy of fuels such as hydrogen, methane or methanol into electricity through a chemical reaction. They are found in various power units and are used in portable, stationary and transport applications and in EES (electrical energy storage) systems. IEC TC (Technical Committee) 105: Fuel cell technologies, prepares International Standards for all FC systems and technologies.

EFOY Pro 2200 FC, for professional users of off-grid industrial applications (Photo: EFOY)

Multiple applications

FCs started moving from the R&D (research and development) phase to commercial deployment for a number of applications in 2007.

FCs are currently used in three main areas:

  • portable applications such as battery and mobile device chargers, APUs (auxiliary power units) and some military systems; in each case, the FCs are designed for mobile use
  • stationary applications in which the FCs supply electricity for UPS (uninterruptible power supplies) and/or provide power and heat in large and small CHP (combined heat power) systems. Stationary applications include use as EES systems
  • in transport, FCs provide propulsive power or range extension to road vehicles. They are being tested in some automobile prototypes, but are not yet widely deployed in that capacity. However, FCs are now found in urban buses as well as in material handling vehicles such as pallet trucks, reach trucks, counterbalance stand ups and counterbalance forklifts. They provide an ideal power solution, for this category of vehicles in replacement of lead acid batteries, which must be unloaded and recharged for 8 hours when empty. By contrast FC systems can be recharged in about 2 minutes, and weight is not a drawback as batteries act as counterweights in forklifts.

Misleading statistics

The type of application determines the power range of FCs as well as the numbers shipped.

Portable FCs have a typical power range of 5 W to 20 kW, those for stationary operations can deliver between 0,5 and 400 kW and FCs for transport applications can provide 1-100 kW.

Assessing the actual size of the FC market can be a difficult exercise as data is reported using two completely different sets of figures. One concerns shipments of units (systems) whilst the other relates to the total megawatts (power output measurement) shipped.

Annual FC shipments in 2012 were forecast to exceed 78 000 units, more than three times the number shipped in 2011 (24 600); 50 500 of these were expected to be portable FC systems, representing nearly a 10-fold increase over the 2010 total.

These figures can be misleading: while the shipment of small portable units represents a sizeable and lucrative market, this relatively large number still contributes little to the total power output shipped (less than 0,3%) owing to the devices’ small capacity. On the other hand, even a relatively small increase in the numbers of stationary or transport FC units can result in a significant surge in power output as the power they provide is higher.

The number of stationary FC units shipped in 2011, boosted by demand for residential CHP systems, was nearly double that of 2010. The total power output of the sector also doubled in 2011. Clean technology consulting company Pike Research has forecast that the stationary FC sector, driven by UPS and CHP applications as well as concern about power grid stability in the wake of natural disasters, will surpass 3 GW in 2013 and increase to 50 GW by 2020.

FC systems for transport applications still lag behind, but the sales of automotive FCs are expected to take a growing share of the FC industry when FCEVs (FC electric vehicles) and the necessary refuelling infrastructure become widely available. In January 2013 three global car manufacturers announced they were pooling resources to bring FCEV to the market as early as 2017.

Supporting the industry's expansion

IEC TC 105 stresses that the scope of its activities has been regularly reassessed and amended to reflect and meet the demands of the industry and the changing technological environment.

Besides following up new developments of FC and related technologies for an early detection of standardization needs for batteries, especially flow batteries, the TC's main tasks are to prepare International Standards for:

  • stationary FC systems, especially for distributed small power generators and CHP systems
  • FC components and modules
  • portable and transportable FC systems
  • FC systems for APUs and for propulsion applications other than road vehicles, including ships, aircraft and material handling equipment such as forklifts
  • FC systems and their integration into local infrastructures, devices and hybrid systems, especially batteries and, longer term, heat engines

TC 105 encompasses 12 WGs (Working Groups) covering various aspects and applications of FCs, and a JWG (Joint Working Group) on cogeneration CHP with IEC TC 5: Steam turbines. As of February 2013 it had published 12 International Standards covering various performance and safety aspects for stationary and micro FC power system. It is also preparing more International Standards to include other applications such as FC power systems for forklift trucks.

The FC industry is still at an early stage and has to overcome challenges such as high costs and large size for certain applications. However, it is expected to grow strongly in coming years, to exceed USD 15 billion by 2017, according to Pike Research. With its work programme designed to further the widest possible adoption of International Standards, IEC TC 105 will go a long way in helping the industry achieve this result.

090618_proseries2200trans-934x1024 EFOY Pro 2200 FC, for professional users of off-grid industrial applications (Photo: EFOY)
yale_forklifts FC systems can easily be retrofitted to replace lead-acid batteries into forklifts, like in these Yale machines
hydrogen_station_02 Hydrogen filling stations are needed to refuel FCs used in road transport vehicles (Photo: BP p.l.c.)