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Green Building Magazine - Hydrogen Supplement - Spring 08

Green Building Magazine - Hydrogen Supplement - Spring 08

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Published by pureenergycentre
Green Building Magazine - Spring 08
http://www.buildingforafuture.co.uk/

Feature on Hydrogen & Fuel Cell technologies, including a visit to the PURE Energy Centre
Green Building Magazine - Spring 08
http://www.buildingforafuture.co.uk/

Feature on Hydrogen & Fuel Cell technologies, including a visit to the PURE Energy Centre

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Published by: pureenergycentre on Aug 21, 2008
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02/24/2011

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GreenBuildingmagazine- Spring08
In this special feature, regular contributor to GreenBuilding magazine, Gavin Harper has assembled thisspecial supplement for us looking at hydrogen fuel andfuel cells ...
The recent flurry of activity by the scientific and engineeringcommunity has brought the fuel cell into the public eye, withthe subject being mentioned on the Green Building forum,prompting a flurry of activity on the subject. We decided tocover the topic with a round-up of some current projects,interviews with people at the centre of the action, and anexposition of the technology, with the aim of attempting toanswer some of the questions posed, and investigatingthe real capabilities of this technology.Many would believe that the fuel cell was a recentinnovation, however, its roots can be traced back to asearly as 1838. Sir William Robert Grove is widely heraldedas the father of the fuel cell. He was born in 1811, inSwansea, Wales, a Welsh lawyer who later applied himselfto the mastery of science. He discovered what is knownas the Grove gas battery. In 1843 he published a diagramand made a primitive model. However, it was not reallyuntil much later (in 1959), that a fuel cell with a sizablepower output (5kW) was developed by British engineer,Francis Thomas Bacon.
Green Building magazine :www.greenbuildingmagazine.co.uk
 
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GreenBuildingmagazine- Spring08
What is a fuel cell?
A fuel cell is an electrochemical energy conversion device. Whyelectrochemical? Because it harnesses the energy made inchemical reactions to produce electrical energy. You might liketo think of a fuel cell as being very similar to a battery, however,there are some key differences. A battery is a sealed unit, wherein the case of disposable batteries, once all of the reactants areused up, their energy is depleted. Fuel cells differ in this respect,in that the reactants are continuously replenished allowing thecell to operate for much longer periods.There is also another key difference. In a battery, because ofthe chemical reactions that are occurring, the electrodes changeover the life of the battery. In the case of rechargeable batteries,this change is reversible ‒ adding energy to the battery allowsthe electrodes to change back into their original state. Fuel cellsdiffer significantly in this respect. A fuel cells electrodes arecatalytic and do not change considerably over the life of the fuelcell. The fuel in a fuel cell is not burned, like in an engine, as such.Fuel cells are quiet, even silent in operation, and are free frompolluting emissions. The key fuel in a fuel cell is hydrogen. Inmany fuel cells this is supplied as a gas, however, with some fuelcells, for example direct methanol fuel cells, another fuel is usedwhich is a hydrogen carrier. This is to say, the methanol actsas a transport mechanism for getting hydrogen to the fuel cell.In Woking, natural gas is being used as a carrier for hydrogen,being reformed on-site before it enters the fuel cell.Why not just use hydrogen? Well, sometimes by using ahydrogen carrier we make the fuel easier to transport and store.These hydrogen carriers could have an important part to playin a transition to a hydrogen economy, as they would allow usto use existing infrastructure that is currently used to transportpetrol and other liquid fuels. However, it must also be notedthat there are carbon dioxide emissions as a result of using ahydrogen carrier.The idea was broached on the Green Building Forum, ofa hydrogen infrastructure being a useless duplication ofinfrastructure that is already present for distributing energy‒ namely our gas and electricity networks. However, if the ideaof hydrogen flowing through pipes in the street seems an alienone, think back to before the discovery of North Sea gas, whentown gas contained up to 50% hydrogen. Allan Jones remainsconfident that gas will continue to flow into the UK for manyyears yet, citing that LPG is easily transportable and can beimported easily. However, the UK has already changed from onepiped gas to another variety with different characteristics ‒ itsnot inconceivable could happen again.
How do fuel cells work?
Lets take a look at what happens inside a fuel cell. In thisexample we are going to look at a proton exchange membraneor polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cell. As we will see later,there are different types of fuel cells, all of which follow similarprinciples.There are two sides to the fuel cell (see Figure 1), the anodeand the cathode. The anode is what we would call our positiveterminal or +V and the cathode, we would call our negativeterminal or -V. Our anode is perpetually exposed to hydrogenwhich is constantly replenished from a supply such as a tank. Thecathode is perpetually exposed to oxygen, which is constantlyreplenished. The two are separated by a plastic membrane madefrom nafion, but more about that later.Looking at the anode, the hydrogen must first diffuse througha gas diffusion electrode (GDE). This is a material which allowsthe gas to pass through to the catalyst, whilst also conductingelectricity. Carbon cloths and papers are commonly used as theyhave the property of being porous to the hydrogen, whilst alsoconducting electricity.Once it has passed through the GDE it comes into contactwith the catalyst, which generally contains platinum. The catalystfacilitates the chemical reaction which comes next, allowing thehydrogen to break into protons and electrons. The nafion plasticmembrane is porous to protons and allows them to pass through.However, the electrons cannot pass through the membrane.Instead, they take the next easiest route to reach the other side‒ this is the electric circuit that allows us to extract useful powerfrom the fuel cell. As the electrons travel round the circuit,they do some work; this could be powering a motor in a car orscooter, powering a portable electronic device or illuminating alamp in your home. When they reach the other side, the oxygen(which can either be pure oxygen or the oxygen present in air)reacts with the electrons which have travelled through the circuit,and the protons which have travelled through the membrane, toform water.
How much power does a fuel cell produce?
Typically, each cell produces a potential difference of around 0.8volts. In a similar way to in a car battery where multiple cells
Figure 1. Simplified diagram of how a fuel cell works.
 
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are used to create 12v, or in many electrical appliances wherewe use a number of batteries to create a higher voltage, sofuel cells can be built up in stacks. A fuel cell stack produces ahigher voltage than an individual fuel cell. The amount of currentthat a fuel cell produces is largely dependent upon the size ofthe active area where the chemical reaction is taking place.
Fuel cell effi ciency
One of the great advantages of fuel cells is that unlikeconventional heat engines, such as the internal combustionengine (the sort you find in your car or generator), or externalcombustion engines (such as steam and Stirling engines), thefuel cell is not constrained by the Carnot cycle effi ciency (thatis to say the rule of thermodynamics which govern the effi ciencyof conventional engines) because the fuel cells do not operateusing a thermal cycle. As a result, fuel cells are theoretically farmore effi cient than heat engines ‒ which results in extractingmore energy from our fuel. However, work is still in progress toreach those theoretically attainable effi ciencies. From practicalexperience effi ciencies of 30% are being attained ‒ whichcorrelates with those figures obtained by Paul in Montreal fromWikipedia on the Green Building Forum. Indeed, further to Paulscomments about energy storage in batteries, projects like HARI(see page 64), show how both technologies can be successfullyintegrated providing effi cient short term storage, with thecapacity for longer-term storage of energy in hydrogen ‒ andthe ability to transport this energy easily or use it as a transportfuel.
The hydrogen economy
With peak oil, and the possibility of peak coal, peak gas and peakuranium, people are looking for new solutions to meet our energyneeds. The hydrogen economy is one proposed way of meetingour energy needs more sustainably.It is important to note, that hydrogen is not used as afuel but as a carrier for energy that is produced using othermeans. Hydrogen is a near ideal energy carrier and permits adecentralised energy infrastructure ‒ supporting the argumentfor small scale, local energy production. It can also fit withinthe framework of our present large scale energy generationinfrastructure ‒ and the ability to store it eliminates many ofthe intermittency problems that are often discussed aboutrenewables.Hydrogen is the first element on the periodic table for a veryspecial reason. It is the simplest of all chemicals, and also thelightest. We do not need to fear running out of hydrogen, asit is the most abundant element in the universe. Hydrogen isa fantastic energy carrier and to understand what makes it sogood, you need to look at why carbon based energy carriers areso bad. When a carbon based fuel burns, it produces carbondioxide, a greenhouse gas. In addition, when carbon is burnedin an internal combustion engine, impurities in the fuel leadto sulphurous emissions that lead to acid rain, and the largenitrogen content of the air, coupled with the high temperaturesreached inside the engine, promote the production of NOX.Furthermore, engines also emit large amounts of unburnthydrocarbons, VOCs and masses of particulates. The damagecaused by burning carbon based fuels can clearly be seen inplaces like Los Angeles, which is permanently shrouded in aphotochemical smog.We have seen the evil of carbon based fuels, which areresponsible for the UKs transition to fuels with a lower carboncontent ‒ typified by the dash for gas, where coal was usurpedby natural gas as the energy of choice. However, the hydrogeneconomy promises a future without carbon.Hydrogen is colourless, odourless and tasteless, non toxic, andproduces water as its only by-product. However, it is dangerousif mixed with air or oxygen because of the fire and explosionrisk. In principle, it can asphyxiate through denying the bodyaccess to oxygen. Contrast this to carbon based fuels whichare also explosive, cause damage to the ecosystem, personalhealth problems, and potential future fuel insecurity. Our globalprosperity in the past couple of centuries has been built oncarbon. Unfortunately carbon fuels have been burnt with littleconsideration for future supply, and the damage done to theenvironment. After much development, our carbon basedengines still only reach around 20% effi ciency. Furthermore,our energy is currently generated centrally, which, due to lossesin transmission and conversion, can be horribly ineffi cient. Bytransitioning to a hydrogen economy, the future is open fordistributed generation.
Types of fuel cell
There are a large number of fuel cell types in research anddevelopment by a large number of companies. At the moment,the state of fuel cell technology can be broken down into adistinct number of types, all with their own distinct characteris-tics, which make them ideal for certain applications.
So how is hydrogen made?
There are a number of ways that we can get our hydrogen. It is abit of a myth that hydrogen is a fuel. It isnt really, as there is nosuch thing as a hydrogen mine.
Electrolysis
At school, you might have used a Hoffman apparatus in scienceclass. A Hoffman apparatus has a reservoir of water throughwhich is passed an electric current. The electric currentdisassociates the hydrogen from the oxygen in the water. Thegas bubbles off from the electrodes and is collected in separatestorage containers. It is observed that twice as much hydrogenis produced as oxygen. Taking a little bit of time to think aboutthis, we see that the chemical formula for water is H
2
O. Thismakes sense as we can see that there is twice as much hydrogenin water as oxygen. The hydrogen produced by the electrolysisprocess is very pure. Some fuel cells require a very pure form ofhydrogen so this is ideal.The one disadvantage of electrolysis is that significantamounts of electrical energy are needed for the process. Whilstthis electricity can be generated using clean, green renewableenergy, there are also many champions of a nuclear-hydrogeneconomy using supposedly cheap nuclear energy to producehydrogen ‒ this would leave us with a toxic legacy of waste andwould negate many of the benefits of a clean hydrogen economy.
Steam reformation
By combining high temperature steam, and methane, it is

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