In October 2016, Dr. Yanhai Du, assistant professor and researcher in fuel cells at Kent State University’s College of Applied Engineering, Sustainability and Technology, came to our breakfast meeting to talk about fuel cells. Several people from KEC also toured his lab in December. Dr. Du is a leading researcher in clean energy and holds several patents in the fuel cell area, including one for a compact spiral ceramic fuel cell produced by 3D printer.
Dr. Du talked about the role of the fuel cell in our energy mix. In the United States, 66.1% of our energy is produced from fossil fuels such as
coal and natural gas. Nuclear makes up 19.4%. Renewables are less than 13.2% now, but are increasing. Even with the political situation, Dr. Du feels the use and growth of renewables is now unstoppable.
So what is a fuel cell? Think of it as a “magic box.”
It is an electrochemical process that doesn’t burn the fuel. You do have to make hydrogen which consumes energy – actually more energy than a fuel cell produces. But if you generate the hydrogen with renewables (such as solar), you can use the power of the fuel cell without needing to depend on the sun.
Solar, wind, hydropower and nuclear power can all be used to produce the energy needed to power a fuel cell. There are several different types of fuel cells, and the ‘magic box’ is a complex place, but a fuel cell can last 10 -20 years and is more efficient than current electricity production methods. A fuel cell can be very small or very large, composed of a stack of fuel cells—currently up to 56 mega watts (MW), which can drive a car, train, plane, etc.
For those of you who are technically minded: A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that directly converts (through a chemical reaction between a fuel and an oxidant) chemical energy in the fuel to electricity (with water and heat as its byproduct, without burning the fuel).
Advantages of fuel cells include:
- Low to zero emissions
- High efficiency
- Fuel Flexibility
- Energy Security
- Quiet Operation
- Technology Capability
- Light weight
- Long Lasting
These advantages are causing a wide variety of commercial usage, including the following:
- The top ten fuel cell power customers are AT&T, Walmart, Ebay, Apple, Coke, Cox, CBS, Sheraton and Adobe. Their use ranges from 17.1 MW to 1.6 MW.
- The top fuel cell forklift customers are SYSCO, Walmart, P&G, Central Grocers, BMW, WinCo Foods, Kroger, Lowes, Wagmans, and Coke. Their use ranges from over 700 forklifts to 96 forklifts each.
- Stark Area Regional Transit Authority (SARTA) in Canton, OH has received a grant covering most of the purchase price of 5 fuel cell buses. While they are more expensive initially, they provide twice the mileage as diesel buses and have zero carbon emissions. Canton will be third in the country in fuel cell bus usage. Ohio itself is one of the top five fuel cell states.
- There are fuel-cell cars coming out now but they are very expensive at about $58,000. By 2025, the goal is 1.5 million cars with zero emissions.
- Cargo trucks can also run on fuel cells. Fuel cell cargo trucks run 400 miles on one fill of hydrogen. The size of a fuel cell depends on how much hydrogen you want to use. You use a pressure gauge to tell how much is in tank. Hydrogen is safer than gasoline—gasoline can burn a car, but if hydrogen leaked, it would just flow into the air.
- Coradia LINT is a new CO2-emission-free regional train and alternative to diesel power. It is powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, its only emission being steam and condensed water while operating with a low level of noise. Alstom, a French company operating worldwide, is among the first railway manufacturers in the world to develop a passenger train based on such a technology.
Dr. Du talked about ways fuel cells could help the coal and other fossil fuel energy sources in the future. If you put a fuel cell next to the fossil fuel energy source, you could use fuel cells there to make electricity, put it right into the grid, and skip transportation/shipping altogether. If the CO2 is captured and put it into the ground, then the electricity would be carbon-free. But for this to happen, the fuel cells need to be bigger than they are now and more research is needed on capturing the carbon.
Future research into designs of fuel cells (to improve the ‘magic box’) are underway to improve their performance and to ramp up the size. Some research is going into using ammonia instead of hydrogen as a fuel.
Kent State students are now experimenting with designing and building a solar fuel cell powered/zero emission golf cart which could be used to take guests around campus and demonstrate the technology.
We were fascinated by this presentation and excited by the help that this technology is lending to our clean energy future. Dr. Du would like the community to learn more about fuel cells, and he encouraged anyone who would like to tour his lab to come anytime. If he is not available, one of his students would be glad to show a visitor around.