With the cost of fossil fuels escalating at phenomenal rates, alternative energy sources such as fuel cells are becoming more attractive to manufacturers.
Fossil fuels are a finite energy source that is rapidly running out, whereas fuel cells represent a future source that is without these limitations. Fuel cells can operate using a variety of fuels, such as hydrogen and biofuels, with almost no environmental and carbon footprint from the process.
As a manufacturer, you’re looking for an energy source that can power your operations at a steady and lower cost. Businesses on the grid are subject to brownouts and power outages. Because fuel cells generate their own electricity, they enable your manufacturing process to continue even when the surrounding world is without power. As a business, this could be your leverage for success.
Also, because of the increased efficiency, fuel cells cost less and are a whole lot more green and friendly to the environment, thus giving your business a better image to the buying public. Ultimately, you can sell the excess energy you generate back to the power company, giving your business an energy credit.
What Are Fuel Cells?
Unlike the internal combustion engine, which burns, or combusts, fuel, a fuel cell uses electrochemical conversion to create energy that you can utilize both in the form of electricity and heat. This is known as combined heat and power, or CHP. It is because they utilize both forms of energy that fuel cells have little or no environmental footprint.
Fuel cells achieve their electrochemical conversion process by carrying electrons from one electrode to the other via an electrolyte with a catalyst that speeds up the process. The basic fuel powering fuel cells is hydrogen, but oxygen is also required. When used to produce electricity, the hydrogen and oxygen combine to form the byproduct of water. Fuel cells produce direct current, but it can be converted into alternating current if necessary.
Fuel cells have no moving parts, and because of this they are silent and vibration-free. When using byproduct heat in addition to the electrical output, the fuel efficiency conversion rate can exceed 90 percent, depending on the circumstances and type of business.
Although fuel cells and batteries both store electrical energy chemically, they differ in that fuel cells produce energy and, as such, must have a renewable fuel source. Also, the electrodes in a battery fluctuate depending on whether it is charging or discharging. In contrast, a fuel cell’s electrodes are relatively stable and catalytic, making it a more reliable source of energy.
Types of Fuel Cells
Fuel cells differ by the types of materials used in the electrodes and electrolyte that the fuel cells use in their conversion process. The following are the types of fuels cells:
- Alkali fuel cells: These use potassium hydroxide in water as an electrolyte, and platinum as electrode catalysts. The Apollo spacecraft used alkali fuel cells as a source of electricity and water.
- Molten carbonate fuel cells: These use salt compounds heated to high temperatures as an electrolyte, and nickel in the electrode catalysts.
- Phosphoric acid fuel cells: These use phosphoric acid as an electrolyte, and platinum for the electrode catalysts.
- Proton exchange membrane fuel cells: These use a polymer electrolyte with platinum as the electrode catalysts.
- Solid oxide fuel cells: These use metallic ceramic compounds such as calcium and zirconium oxides as a solid electrolyte.
Natural resources are generally finite. Renewal resources can be used over and over because what is released from the output can be reused in the input. When this happens, a system has become completely sustainable: All materials are used to the fullest and what remains is recycled back into the manufacturing process, creating an overall greater efficiency within your business.
The main drawback to fuel cells is their cost, which is due to some of the electrodes being made of platinum. (This is not true of molten carbonate fuel cells and solid oxide fuel cells.) Alternative materials will continue to be explored, and this should eventually lead to cheaper fuel cells.
But if energy prices continue to soar, the costs of fuel cells may seem nominal in comparison to their benefits. Sierra Nevada Brewery in Chico, California, shifted to fuel cells mainly in reaction to an energy crisis that caused a series of brownouts and blackouts. It’s hard to run a manufacturing business when you can’t rely on your source of energy.
Besides Sierra Nevada Brewery, other businesses that have begun to profit from fuel cell technology include Chevron, Boeing, and Verizon. Verizon’s Garden City project, which uses fule cells to power its call-routing center in Garden City, New York, services more than 35,000 customers, and by using hydrogen as its fuel source, it has no environment footprint and is completely sustainable.