Managing a clean environment with Fuel Cell Technology

The concept of fuel cell quickly faded into oblivion once the dynamo (W Von Siemens, 1866) and the internal combustion engine (N A  Otto, 1867 . Four stroke engine and R Diesel, 1892: Diesel engine) entered the market. Pratt and Whitney Aircraft licensed the Bacon patents and built the power unit for NASA’s Apollo capsules. Although interests in fuel cell decreased strongly after the Apollo Program was abandoned. NASA continued to improve their alkaline system for their Space Orbiter. Through their specialized application in Gemini space Program, the Fuel Cell concept came of age and their demonstrations have encouraged the development of the technology for commercial land based use. Today their system is considered fully developed which can be seen by the fact that there is no back up electric power installed on the spacecraft. The cost of this system is still high, but this is compensated by a high lifetime of 5000 h and more.

During the past two decades fuel cells have undergone revolutionary transformations and until now the Fuel Cell Vehicles (FCVs) have made full cycle in system selection principles and fuel cell driven cars and buses are now part of the fleet in US and European countries. Some of the western countries have also taken up the challenge of commissioning fuel cell operated power plants that need the capability to function on reformed fuels and to cogenerate electricity and heat.

21st century has been witnessing a serious threat to the progress of human civilization due to dearth of energy, the primary infrastructure for advancement in technology. As on date more than 90% of global energy requirements are fulfilled by burning of fossil fuels like crude oil, coal and natural gas with the consequent release of harmful pollutants that impose serious warning to the environmental security for the future generation. Furthermore over the past 30 years, the energy consumption rate has grown much faster than the replenishment of its reserves and as a result the Global Energy Crisis has risen to an alarming level. Eventually the distorted climatic and eco-imbalance have evoked global consciousness for rediscovery of nature’s wisdom which enables mankind to opt for a sustainable future.

Although the environmental concerns have spurred various development efforts by world organizations from time to time on initiating long term environmental strategies. The targets were rather compromised due to economic, political and several other non-technical issues.

It is well assessed that the world is not  going to run out of hydrocarbons or oils from unconventional sources any time very soon  but the difficult  task to obtain is cheap petroleum because an enormous amount of low grade  hydrocarbons are left, which are likely to be much more expensive  financially, energetically, politically and especially environmentally. As the conventional oil becomes less important, society gets the opportunity to make investments in a different source of energy so that the dependence on hydrocarbons can be relaxed. Nuclear energy though non-renewable in a strict sense has a fairly abundant source, at least in comparison to the fossil fuel. But unfortunately large scale tapping of this energy source is debatable as till now there is no complete technical solution to the problem of safe disposal of the waste materials which increases the likelihood of nuclear weapon proliferation. In contrast the perennial offer from nature comprises a bagful of viable alternatives like wind, solar power, ocean energy and also biomass that to a major extent remains unexplored. Its only since the beginning of the 21st century several renewable technologies have been accelerated by the government and non-government organizations and frantic efforts are being put forward by the scientists and engineers to save the world from its fatigued future.

The urgent necessity of reducing pollution in large urban centres as well as providing electricity to remote villages, improves the use of the non-polluting fuels like hydrogen and other renewable primary fuel in large scale. In this respect, the fuel cell technology has shown to be a very interesting and promising alternative to solve the problems of clean electric power generation with high efficiency. In fact fuel cells offer potential to revolutionize electricity generation are well suited for ushering in decentralized energy production and delivery systems. Since the fuel cells make their energy through a non-combustion process, they produce virtually zero emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulphur oxides (Sox) and particulate matter. Thus, in addition to reducing overall fuel requirements and carbon dioxide emissions, the system eliminates air pollutants.

The world’s leading automakers, fuel cell developers, material and component suppliers, national laboratories and universities are in a race to bring fuel cell vehicles to the marketplace. Fuel Cell Market Approach is to achieve durability of the system for 3000 h to 5000 h and lower the cost below $100/kW. The goal of this pursuit is to offer an alternative to the internal combustion engine that provides more efficient and cleaner energy, better fuel diversity and ultimately a cost effective means to manufacture, maintain and operate.