Fuel Cell: What it is, What it Does – NECA/IBEW Team
I’m sure you’re aware of what solar energy is, and I’ll bet you know what wind power is as well, but I’m going to throw out another green phrase that you may have heard, but you may not understand how it works – a fuel cell. In some cases, a fuel cell can produce electricity that is 300 percent more efficient than other fossil fuels.
They’re popping up all over the United States and are generating electricity for homes and factories right now. ETV’s Dominic Giarratano headed out to see one of these fuel cells in action near San Francisco.
Dominic Giarratano: Chris, good morning!
Chris Pais, Manager of Application Engineering, FuelCell Energy: Good morning, Dominic.
DG: Thanks for taking the time to come out here and show us your fuel cell this morning.
CP: It’s my pleasure.
DG: What is a fuel cell?
CP: A fuel cell is a device that takes the energy in a fuel, and electrochemically converts it to electricity and heat. So basically in a fuel cell you need fuel and you need oxygen. The fuel is basically taken from a readily available fuel source, such as natural gas or bio gas. The oxygen is obtained from air, and these two components, they undergo an electro-chemical reaction and the by product is electricity, which you get at very high efficiency and heat, which you can then use for your process needs in your facility.
DG: Now, we’re at a wastewater treatment facility and that bio gas you were talking about, I certainly can smell. But that actually is an important part of the process.
CP: It is, basically the wastes that come in and are treated by a wastewater treatment facility and one of the byproducts of that treatment is called anaerobic digestion of the wastes. It creates methane. That bio gas, which is rich in methane, is then used as a fuel source.
DG: So let’s go take a look at it.
DG: Okay on the back side of the fuel cell, now, it really looks like three different components back here. Let’s talk about these and kind of what goes on.
CP: Before we go into those three components, I wanted to talk about how fuel cells are efficient because they convert the energy without going through the combustion process. Because they don’t go through the combustion process, there’s none of the pollution that’s associated with pollution, there’s no nox, there’s no particulate formation. These things are associated with conventional forms of producing electricity where you have to combust the fuel. In a fuel cell, everything happens electrochemically in this magic box that we call a fuel cell. Going back to the three components of the fuel cell, one is the mechanical balancer plant, which is to the far left there.
CP: That is the system which basically processes the fuel and the air, which is required for the fuel cell reactions to take place.
DM: So that bio gas.
CP: So the bio gas, yes.
CP: It treats it, cleans it up, brings it to the right temperature to make the fuel cell happy. So this thing in the middle is the fuel cell, that’s the magic box, that’s where all the electrochemistry happens and the fuel is converted to electricity and heat. Now the electricity coming out of fuel cell is DC power, which is not really useful for common use. So that DC power has to be convert to AC power and that is done by the third component of the fuel cell, which is the system you see to the far right there.
DG: Well let’s walk around and check it out.
DG: Okay Chris, this is really getting down to the guts of the operation here.
CP: That’s right, this is the mechanical balancer plant of the fuel cell. This is where we have the different systems to process the fuel and the air, make it suitable for use in the fuel cell.
CP: This also houses the control system of the fuel cell. As you can see, our fuel cells are unmanned plants, they operate by themselves automatically. And this is the computer system that controls all the control functions of the fuel cell. There’s a screen here for the user interface, and that basically tells the different components of the fuel cell what to do in order to make the system work and generate electricity.
DG: Now it’s funny to kind of mention as we stand here, it’s really quiet.
CP: Yes. Fuel cells are very quiet. We’re almost 2 or 3 inches away from this and we can have regular conversations without raising our voice. And if you think about it Dominic, right here, we’re making sufficient electricity to power more than 500 homes.
DG: These 3 things we just saw is enough power for 500 homes? That’s Unbelievable.
DG: Any byproducts of this process?
CP: Of course, fuel cells generate heat, which can then be used in your process.
DG: Okay, let’s check it out.
Tony Sarti, general superintendent, Sprig Electric
“You have to keep in mind too, that solar is only efficient while the sun is out. These run 24/7. So if you’re at a place of business that’s open from 9 to 5, from 9 to 5, the fuel cell is feeding the grid. But from 5 to 9 the next morning when your business is shut down, it’s still feeding the grid.”
James Conlow, Sprig Electric
“From an electrical point of view, they’re about 40-50 percent efficient. The numbers we see are 45-47 efficient on an electrical side. When you add in the heat, they’re over 90 percent efficient.”
DG: Okay, the exhaust from the fuel cell, tell us what’s going on here.
CP: So here you have the clean exhaust from the fuel cell coming out at a high temperature being sent to this heat exchanger and it’s being used to heat water. Now the heat exhaust from the fuel cell, the high temperature fuel cell, can be used to make either hot water or generate steam or be used to generate cooling. This particular facility, they’re using it to make hot water.
DG: And what are they using that hot water for?
CP: They’re using the hot water here to keep the digesters warm and keep the bugs happy so they can keep generating the methane.
DG: And the methane goes into the fuel and so on so they can keep going.
DG: Chris, let’s just talk about the need for a trained, safe qualified workforce to install a fuel cell.
CP: As you can see, Dominic, this is a fairly sophisticated piece of equipment. You have components that have to be integrated in the field. And you need qualified electricians and technicians to put this thing together.
DG: Not anybody off the street can do this work?
CP: No. You need to be qualified, you need to be aware of the codes, local and state and so on, so you can do the installation in a safe and efficient manner.
DG: Well, Chris thanks for your time. For Chris Pais, I’m Dominic Giarratano. Back to you, Tom.
Thanks, Dom. Fuel Cells are an emerging technology that can be of great use to not only heavy industrial building owners and users, but also to municipalities and electric co-ops, as well.
A big part of our country’s new energy economy will be reliant on innovation in old areas, such as fuel cells and other green technologies, mixed with good ol', American know-how.
Thanks for being with us on this edition of Electric TV. Make sure to check back soon, because as you know, there’s always something new on ETV.