Stewart Dow, packaged energy manager at BOC, a provider of industrial, medical and special gases in the UK and Ireland, describes the impact that fuel cells can have on low carbon portable power

Many industries still have the problem of providing portable power that is both low carbon and practical. However, with the government setting ambitious reduction targets, the technology to reduce carbon emissions in niche industries is developing rapidly – particularly within the world of portable power.

Providing a portable power system that is silent, easy to transport, highly efficient and zero carbon has been the holy grail for the past few decades. Deploying such technology will have huge benefits for UK industries. In lighting, for instance, portable power sources are essential to supplying power in areas away from the National Grid and the construction industry relies heavily on the use of diesel and petrol generators.

Fuel cells to the rescue

Hydrogen fuel cells are undoubtedly helping to achieve this goal. While it is similar to diesel and petrol in that it has good energy density and fast refuelling, it also can be produced from a variety of sustainable energy sources including wind, solar, biomass and also nuclear – unlike the others.

Many high efficiency electrical devices require only tens to hundreds of watts of power, making hydrogen fuel cells a good choice for off-grid power sources in applications such as temporary lighting, power tool charging, security cameras and environmental monitoring.

While oil and gas generators are widely available, they are not energy efficient. This becomes obvious at lower powers where a small petrol engine generator will be less than five percent efficient at 100W and only about two percent efficient at 50W. This means that the benefits of using high efficiency floodlights rather than conventional tungsten floodlights are lost.

As pressure to reduce emissions increases, the oil and gas option is increasingly unacceptable. Oil and gas generators can emit carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide, plus other pollutants. Because hydrogen fuel cells do not, it means they can be used where emission-free operation is required – and that’s increasingly becoming the norm. They are also almost silent, so are suitable for situations where noise is a problem. At the moment, environmental laws prohibit the use of oil and gas generators in residential areas after certain hours because of noise nuisance. This ban can cost companies both time and money.

Unlike batteries, it is easy to see how much fuel or ‘charge’ is left when using hydrogen fuel cells and it does not take several hours to ‘recharge’. Hydrogen can be fed to the fuel cell directly from a compressed gas cylinder or generated by reforming hydrogen rich fuels such as natural gas or LPG. They don’t require regular replacing or recharging. Batteries are heavy and their performance is seriously affected by extremes of temperature and charge history, which also has a detrimental effect on their service life.

Hurdles to overcome

However, despite these benefits, hydrogen fuel cells are still a relatively young technology and cost can be a stumbling block for some markets. The classic example is automotive. Without investment in a hydrogen fuel cell infrastructure, car manufacturers can be reluctant to develop hydrogen cars. The news that German car manufacturer, Daimler, and technology company, The Linde Group, are developing an infrastructure for hydrogen powered fuel cell vehicles is great for Germany – but the situation in the UK is very different.

Unlike Germany and the US where there are major hydrogen automotive development programmes, the UK needs to draw on its expertise in developing and marketing innovative niche products to help drive forward a hydrogen economy. Hydrogen fuel cells are a good example of this. By encouraging their development, the UK will not be left behind as other global players invest in their low carbon technologies. The roll-out of hydrogen fuel cells in the portable power market is a far easier process in the UK and could help remove barriers to the use of hydrogen in other markets.

Hydrogen fuel cells are likely to be the future of portable power generation. As hydrogen technology develops even further, and pressure mounts to reduce emissions, the potential applications for hydrogen fuel cells will grow. Not only will the roll-out of hydrogen fuel cells help reduce emissions in the portable power generation market, but they could pave the way for much larger scale development of a hydrogen economy.


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