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Fuel Cells – The Better Batteries? A Conversation

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Pro-Life Member Level  Wednesday, 09/25/13 08:23:11 PM
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Fuel Cells – The Better Batteries? A Conversation With Power & Energy Inc.
Wednesday September 25, 2013 16:14


Kicking off our segment on hydrogen fuel cells are Noel Leeson and David Kepniss of Power and Energy Inc, a technology company from Ivyland, Pennsylvania. Power and Energy evolved from hydrogen purification into the manufacturing of hydrogen analyzers as well as hydrogen separators and fuel cells. Most notably, they developed a process replacing platinum with palladium in diffusor tubes leading to improved performance and longevity of the unit. Nick Leeson is the company’s President, David Kepniss is the director of Sales and Marketing.

As a preamble, in very simple terms, the fuel cell process has three components: a reformer, a membrane reactor and the fuel cell. The reformer breaks down fuel (such as Methanol) into materials that are easy to process by the reactor. The multi-function membrane reactor separates hydrogen (H2) from these materials (called the “reformate”), leaving behind CO2 and H2O as well as trace amount of residue. Finally the fuel cell splits the hydrogen atom into an electron used to power a device while passing the proton through a membrane, leaving behind nothing but water as residue. Simple enough? If not, Power and Energy have a great animation on their website explaining it all in pictures.
Thankfully, each step along the way utilizes precious metals and precious metal alloys of the platinum group, as catalysts and membrane materials. How much of it? Alas, a trade secret.

The three process steps may be run in sequence but they don’t have to be. That is why in mobile applications you will only find the actual fuel cell and a tank of pure hydrogen as the fuel. Hydrogen (H2) is delivered as a highly compressed gas making delivery more complicated. On the upside, this is the only difference to conventional gasoline and the two products are sold side by side at a number of gas stations in Europe already. Fueling is easy to do and a pressure valve prevents hazards.

Accordingly, the main markets for Power &Energy’s technology today are auxiliary power units (APUs), large scale power generation systems (anything from a power plant to a residential home) and “mobility”, a market segmented in forklift trucks and other vehicles.

David Kepniss explained that law enforcement and the military in particular have a high interest in portable fuel cell technology. Conventional batteries are carried by soldiers and in vehicles to power the various electronic devices in use can be extremely heavy so finding an alternative is important.

More important in volume, however, is the residential housing market. Both Japan and Germany have active programs to promote the use of fuel cells not only for power production but also to generate hot water, which conveniently remains as the process’ residue. David quoted reports from Japan where back in 2004 about 20,000 such units were installed already, with new 50,000 units expected for this year.

Obvious advantages of H2 are the smaller room requirement and reduced weight compared to batteries, two-minute fueling times and the absence of gradual power loss all the way to complete exhaustion of the fuel.

Asked about the biggest hurdles of implementing H2 for mobility on a broader scale, Noel Leeson unsurprisingly names “infrastructure” as the top issue. However, he adds that other parts of the world are already much more advanced than North America in creating the necessary infrastructure. Most notably, Japan and Germany are in the process of setting up hundreds of filling stations to be ready when mass-produced passenger cars will hit the market by 2015. Toyota and Mercedes are perceived to be at the forefront by Power and Energy with many others closely behind.

“Don’t look at the U.S.”, urged Noel. “The U.S. isn’t leading in alternative vehicles. Period”.

Noel Leeson quoted reports from China where cleaning up the environment is climbing rapidly on the agenda; Japan which is shifting its energy paradigms; and Germany where the protection of the environment has always been an item of high importance.

He also pointed out that the term “vehicle” should not be used to describe passenger cars only; it encompasses two-wheelers such as motorcycles and scooters as well as buses and trucks of which the above countries already operate very large numbers.

Higher fuel prices in these regions are tipping the scale in H2’s favor a lot more than in the U.S. where gas is very inexpensive in comparison. And while older studies were showing H2 technology as about twice as expensive as conventional ICEs (internal combustion engines) H2 is quickly closing that gap. Besides of continuously improving H2 production methods, the technology has not been deployed on an optimized car so far. Noel explained that in essence a fuel cell’s purpose is to replace batteries in an electric vehicle (EV), the basic drivetrain being exactly the same.

Considering all efforts that went into EVs in recent years in terms of lightweight materials and design, the same will apply to future fuel cell powered cars. And while battery powered vehicles were still suffering from high extra weight, range issues and long charging times H2 eliminates all these issues by means of a simple chemical reaction.

“Fuel cells just are the better batteries”, summarized Noel.

By Bodo Albrecht

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