Fuel for thought

Fuel cell technology is opening the doors to a more sustainable energy future, providing a reliable, green and urban-friendly energy solution


In the 1840s, Welsh judge and physicist William Robert Grove demonstrated the first fuel cell, generating electricity by converting the chemical energy produced by a reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. More than 175 years later, fuel cell technology is opening the doors to a more sustainable energy future, providing a reliable, green and urban-friendly energy solution.

Fuel cells transform chemical energy from fuel into power and heat through a co-generation process, producing energy output more efficiently than the separate production of electricity and heat.

In contrast to conventional combined heat and power (CHP) applications, fuel cells emit virtually no emissions from pollutants such as NOx, SOx and particulates. Therefore, in addition to reducing CO2 emissions from heat and power generation, they can improve air quality, which is particularly important in dense urban areas where air pollution has been identified as a key health issue.

The technology is also flexible in terms of fuel input and can currently operate on natural gas, biogas or a blend of fuels. In the future, when fuelled by pure hydrogen derived from water electrolysis using electricity from renewables, fuel cells will be a fully renewable, carbon-neutral solution.

And there are other benefits too: unlike wind turbines, which can be unsuitable for built-up, urban environments, fuel cells are modular and compact, meaning they can be easily installed in a basement or on a roof. They also have no moving parts and so produce low noise and vibration.

UK engineering specialist Doosan Babcock is working hard to spread the word about the benefits of its fuel cell product – the Doosan PureCell® Model 460 – in the UK and European markets. The unit offers 460kW of electricity and 513kW of heat with minimal carbon footprint and 90 per cent efficiency, versus coal-fired power generation which is just 35 to 45 per cent efficient, and combined cycle gas which is 50 to 55 per cent efficient.

Ian Chisholm, director of Green Power Solutions for Doosan Babcock, explains: “It really is a winning solution, and as the world continues its search for viable, sustainable and clean energy sources, fuel cells are likely to play an increasingly important role.”

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Chisholm cites the evolving energy market value chain across Europe as a particularly fertile market for fuel cell technology, driven by increasing environmental legislation, such as the Climate Change Act and the Medium Combustion Plant Directive. However, he believes the UK still has some way to go to embrace the technology.

“At the moment, the market is in its infancy in the UK and really requires scale roll-out to become competitive. We also need to see major investment in the UK’s hydrogen infrastructure to enable us, as a nation, to fully exploit the benefits of fuel cells as a completely carbon-free energy solution.”

Chisholm explains that with economies of scale, there is the potential for unit costs to be halved by 2020, which would make fuel cell economics competitive with conventional gas CHP. To achieve commercialisation, policy support will be crucial. Options could include:
• Enhanced tax benefits for fuel cells to reflect reduced emissions;
• Early implementation of the Medium Combustion Directive in the UK, focusing on urban areas with local pollution challenges;
• A policy mechanism to incentivise hydrogen heating, similar to feed-in tariffs and the renewable heat incentive provided for low-carbon renewable fuels such as biomass.

Doosan Babcock is currently in the process of installing a PureCell® unit at its office and manufacturing facility in Renfrew, Scotland, where it currently fabricates products for customers working in the UK’s nuclear and thermal power generation, oil and gas, and process industries. Supplying heat, power and cooling, the unit will provide both a constant base load and heating for the 16,000 m² site. During the summer months, when heat demand drops, the fuel cell output will also be used with auxiliary equipment to provide air-conditioning.

“Our projections show that the fuel cell won’t just help realise a large reduction in our energy bills — it will also significantly reduce our carbon footprint, which is a core objective for us. Our goal is to have the unit up and running this year to mark Doosan Babcock’s 125th anniversary, and then we look forward to reaping the benefits of that clean, reliable energy supply for the next 20 years – the typical product life cycle of our fuel cell,” explains Chisholm.

The PureCell® is currently manufactured in Connecticut by Doosan Fuel Cell America, with Doosan Babcock responsible for sales, installation, operation and maintenance in the emerging European market.

Chisholm believes that, with greater investment in UK fuel cell technology, there could be potential to establish a new industry and create more skilled manufacturing, engineering and construction jobs in the UK. “Fuel cells really are good news all round. The technology is proven, it ticks all the ‘green’ boxes, and it slots nicely into the push for a more decentralised energy network. We just need to give it the kick start it needs to get off the ground in the UK and Europe.”