In the News Archives

National Fuel Cell Research Center at UC Irvine to Test New, Efficient and Clean Power Generation Technology

Edison Technology Solutions has chosen the National Fuel Cell Research Center at UC Irvine to test a new, highly efficient type of power plant. Under construction at Siemens Westinghouse Power Corp., the "hybrid" system integrates a fuel cell with a gas turbine and is expected to generate electricity at efficiencies believed unreachable in small-sized plants just a few years ago.

If successful, the technology will produce electricity at low cost. Urban smog-forming pollutant emissions from power plants could be reduced to undetectable levels and the emission of greenhouse gases from those plants could fall by more than half as well, according to Scott Samuelsen, director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center.

Researchers from UCI's National Fuel Cell Research Center and engineers from Edison Technology Solutions, part of Edison International, are preparing the test site and plan for the 250-kilowatt plant, with full operation scheduled for October.

Hybrid plants are key to distributed power generation, a movement toward creating smaller, customized power sources that can be located closer to customers.

Currently, most customers get their energy from a power grid that draws energy from a few, big power plants. Distributed power generation would allow a hospital, university or a hotel, for example, to use a hybrid power plant as its main source of power.

Fuel cells are devices in which the energy of a chemical reaction is converted directly into electricity, and unlike batteries, fuel cells do not run down or require recharging. Micro-turbine generators, another new technology, are small versions of the large gas turbine electricity generators used by utilities today. They include a turbine, compressor and generator all on a single shaft. With only one moving part, they promise simplicity and reliability.

A hybrid system combines both new technologies and costs less than a stand-alone fuel cell, but offers twice the efficiency of a stand-alone micro-turbine. The hybrid power plant is targeted to operate at an efficiency of 60 percent with an installed cost of $1,000 to $1,500 per kilowatt for a commercial unit. Its energy cost-kilowatts used over time-would be only half that of conventional technology. The efficiency of an internal combustion engine about the same size typically ranges from 20 to 30 percent, and a gas turbine-based generator of about the same size typically has an efficiency of about 30 percent. The installed cost of those systems ranges from $400 to $1,000 per kilowatt. In the future, hybrid systems are expected to approach 70 percent electrical efficiency or greater, and reach an even higher overall efficiency when exhaust heat is captured and used.

Edison's hybrid power plant was developed in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Energy, the California Energy Commission and Siemens Westinghouse Power Corp., the fuel cell manufacturer.

"This demonstration, the first in the world, portends a quantum jump toward achieving ultra high-efficiency power generation with negligible pollutant emission," said Scott Samuelsen, director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center at UCI. "The hybrid also will provide a unique opportunity to reveal areas of research that will further the technology and achieve the performance goals and reliability projected for market penetration." "We believe that economies of manufacturing are replacing economies of scale, creating a great opportunity for small-scale, super-efficient technologies like the hybrid," said Vikram S. Budhraja, president of Edison Technology Solutions. "Distributed technologies provide a solution for customers, utilities and competitive markets to meet the need for energy efficiency, local reliability, ancillary services and deferral of power grid upgrades."

How does the hybrid power plant work? It first uses the micro-turbine compressor to pressurize air for the fuel cell. In the cell, natural gas is injected into the high-pressure air to produce electricity and heat through an electrochemical process. Exhaust gas from the fuel cell then provides the motive force for the micro-turbine, driving both its compressor and a generator to produce even more electricity. Such hybrid plants are flexible to work with other fuels; they also have no detectable pollutant emissions and greatly reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

The tests will lead to efforts to commercialize the hybrid technology effectively and will provide knowledge about how to refine the power plant for the marketplace.

UCI's National Fuel Cell Research Center was dedicated in 1998 in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Energy, the California Energy Commission, the California Air Resources Board, the South Coast Air Quality Management District and industry.

Faculty, students and visiting engineers from industry work together at the center to develop, demonstrate, evaluate and research fuel cell technologies. Researchers at the center advance the commercialization of fuel cell technologies, develop solutions to technical problems with the cells and bridge relationships among the university, industry, government and consumers. For more information about the center, see

Edison Technology Solutions develops and markets new technologies, products and services for the emerging energy and electricity marketplace. The company's expertise includes distributed generation, power grid reliability, renewable energy and customer electrotechnologies. For more information about the company, see (This URL is not available).

June 15, 1999