Fuel Cells


Each of the fuel cell types currently being developed or manufactured has features that make it particularly attractive for certain applications. For example, the greater efficiency and higher temperature operation of PAFCs, MCFCs and SOFCs make them more amenable to large stationary power generation where high grade waste heat can be utilized to heat water or air or to provide cooling. Conversely, the lower operating temperature PEM fuel cells are particularly well suited for transportation applications where the heat is neither usable nor desirable.

The two principal applications for fuel cells include:

  • Stationary
  • Mobile

Stationary Applications

Fuel Cells for Stationary (Buildings) Power. Fuel cells produce electricity for homes, businesses, institutions, and industry through stationary power plants. Sizes range from 1 kilowatt (the average U.S. house uses about 1-2 kW and peak at 15 kW during high usage times) to tens of megawatts (enough to power institutions or factories).

Distributed Generation. Distributed Generation or DG is defined as:

  • Electric generation located close to the load being served.
Another related term with some important distinctions is Distributed Energy Resources (DER) which is defined as:

  • A variety of power technologies (e.g., batteries, DG, thermal storage, black-start generators) that can be combined with energy management and storage systems and used to improve the operation of the electricity delivery system, whether or not those technologies are connected to an electricity grid.
Distributed generation is often contrasted to central generation. In the case of central generation, power is generated in a large plant (gigawatts in size) and electricity is transmitted tens to hundreds of miles over transmission and distribution lines (collectively referred to as the power grid) to loads where the power is consumed.

In the case of distributed generation, the potential exists to provide generation at the building where the power is consumed AND feed excess power back into the power grid as needed to support the grid.

Another key advantage of distributed generation is that, in addition to the higher efficiency electricity, the heat produced by the fuel cell can be utilized by the site (CCHP).

Fuel Cell Manufacturers. Examples of manufactures of fuel cell systems include:

  • Altergy Systems
  • Avista Labs (PEMFC)
  • Ballard (PEMFC)
  • FuelCell Energy (MCFC, SOFC)
  • General Motors (PEMFC)
  • Hydrogenics (PEMFC)
  • Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (SOFC)
  • Matsushita Electric Industrial Co Ltd (PEMFC)
  • Plug Power, Inc. (PEMFC)
  • Panasonic (PEMFC)
  • Sanyo Electric Co. (PEMFC)
  • Toyota Motor Corporation (PEMFC)
  • Doosan (PAFC)
  • Bloom Energy (SOFC)

Mobile Applications

Toyota Mirai. The Toyota Mirai was the first commercially available fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV), brought to the U.S. market at the end of 2015. The Mirai is a sedan, outfitted luxuriously for a Toyota as it was originally developed to be sold under the Lexus brand. Toyota decided to sell the Mirai as a Toyota to reach a wider market, a welcoming gesture for what Toyota sees as the future of personal vehicles.

Honda Clarity. Honda followed the Toyota Mirai closely with the Clarity FCEV going on sale in 2016. This Clarity was an update to the FCX Clarity first leased in very limited numbers beginning in 2008. The current Clarity lineup includes the FCEV as well as a battery electric vehicle (BEV) and a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV). Like the Mirai, the Clarity is a sedan.

Hyundai Nexo. The most recently released FCEV is the Hyundai Nexo. Capitalizing on the recent trend (as well as relieving some of the tight packaging constraints of first-generation FCEVs), the Nexo is an SUV. This gives the Nexo a market advantage, as well as the longest range of the currently-available FCEVs.

Drivers. FCEVs offer drivers the convenience of traditional fossil fuel-powered vehicles, namely long driving range and quick refueling. These conveniences offer FCEVs a practical advantage over battery electric vehicles (BEVs) for many drivers looking for a clean vehicle.

The next evolution of these vehicle types affords the driving conveniences of FCEVs with the ultra-high efficiency of BEVs. This vehicle type is the plug-in fuel cell electric vehicle (PFCEV). Think of the PFCEV as the zero emission version of the plug-in hybrid. PFCEVs are powered both by a battery and a fuel cell, providing drivers with the conveniences and environmental qualities of both FCEVs and BEVs.

Emission Reduction. Fuel cells produce dramatically lower emissions than today's traditional coal, oil, or combustion technologies. While they do still produce some CO2 when using a hydrocarbon fuel, the production of criteria pollutants is negligible. When operating on renewable hydrogen, the carbon signature is zero.

Public Policy. The California Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) Program, administered by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), has been a large incentive for automobile manufacturers to actively pursue fuel cell development for the purpose of reducing emissions.

This program has mandated that beginning in 2003, ten percent of passenger cars delivered for sale in California from medium or large sized manufacturers must be ZEVs. Automobiles powered by batteries or those powered by fuel cells operating on hydrogen meet these requirements (through either full or partial credits).

While public policy is influencing fuel cells as a whole, a number of initiatives are particularly focused on mobile applications.

  • California Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) Mandate

  • "Freedom Car" National Initiative that has taken the place of the former Partnership For New Generation Of Vehicles (PNGV)

  • Kyoto Agreement Requires CO2 Reduction

  • European forced reductions in car CO2 Emissions

  • Aggressive Fuel / CO2 Taxes

  • State by state and country based incentives

Efficiency. The internal combustion engine is a relatively inefficient engine, converting only about 15-18% of the heat content of gasoline, diesel, etc. into useful energy. Fuel cells' significantly higher efficiency, upwards of 60%, translates directly to reduced fuel consumption. U.S. EPA estimates that for model year 2017, the fuel efficiency of U.S. vehicles was 24.9 MPG, the highest average to date. According to U.S. EPA results, current FCEVs attain 57 MPG to 68 MPG ratings, depending on the model.

Buses / Trucks. Since Ballard unveiled the world's first fuel cell bus in 1993, fuel cell buses have been built and operated worldwide. This number includes buses developed by Ballard, Toyota, DaimlerChrysler, Thor Industries, TATA Motors, Wrightbus, Georgetown University, Irisbus, MAN, Neoplan, Scania and Xcellsis. Although activity is spread across the globe, many of these vehicles have been built and operated in north America.

UCI currently operates a fuel cell bus as part of its zero-emission fleet, and it fuels at the on-campus hydrogen station. Additionally, the Orange County Transportation Authority has taken delivery on eleven fuel cell buses and established a hydrogen fueling capability at one of its four hubs capability of fueling 50 buses each night.

A typical bus power plant is 250 kW in size and developers have utilized both Phosphoric Acid and Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cells, though PEM fuel cells are most common currently just as in the passenger vehicle market.

While the number of buses is limited, this is an appealing early market due to a number of attractive features, including:

  • Central fueling facilities

  • Onsite service personnel

  • Known use

  • Continuous operation during the day

  • Fewer weight and size restrictions (compared to passenger vehicles)

Motor Scooters / Electric Bikes. According to an analysis by Fuel Cell Today, motor scooters produce a disproportionate amount of pollution, given their size. Particulate matter is almost as high as that from a large diesel truck per mile and pollution in the form of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons emissions is triple. The same report also showed that motor scooters account for 25% - 75% of Asia's vehicle fleets depending upon country.

Marine. In the area of shipping, development work is underway in the area of propulsion as well as auxiliary power for cruise ships, powered barges, ferry boats, offshore supply boats, push-tow boats, oceangoing tugs, submersibles, and even submarine tankers.

Locomotives. Fuel cells are today power trams in China and commuter trains in Europe with fuel cell engine blocks under development to power long-haul locomotives in the United States.