There’s a lot going on in the fuel cell world. Applications both large and small are increasing as utilities, industrial and commercial customers install fuel cell systems as primary or back-up sources of clean electrical power. A string of automakers have recently announced commitments to fuel cell vehicle development programs. Fuel cell use is even growing in the residential market. Moving further down in scale, they’re increasingly being used in consumer electronics.
In most cases, longstanding challenges to wide-scale commercialization remain, however, due to one simple fact: production costs remain all too high, putting large-scale commercialization off in the distant future.
The UK’s AFC Energy is intent on changing that, and as quickly as possible. On the verge of announcing its first commercial-scale installations with an industrial partner, AFC founder Howard White talked with Clean Technica about the company’s laser-like focus on taking the basic, time-tested and proven alkaline fuel cell technology invented in the 19th century and updating it through the use of modern materials and manufacturing processes.
The result is a modular, low cost-high-performance alkaline fuel cell system that if not commercially viable today soon will be, certainly in specific industrial sectors, according to White.
If AFC succeeds, White sees its success as opening up a global market for hydrogen that in large part is viewed and treated as a waste by-product in industry.
“The internal combustion engine monetized what was essentially a nuisance product. Today, companies are throwing hydrogen away as a waste product, a nuisance product, because it’s too expensive to move around. We monetize the value of hydrogen, and when that happens, we and others will start looking for it.
“We’re turning a mechanical operation into a solid state solution at a much lower cost, with the same efficiency,” White explained. “I think we are the breakthrough technology that will help usher in a hydrogen economy.”
A Disruptive Alkaline Fuel Cell Technology
AFC’s alkaline fuel cell system is a low temperature, low pressure technology that operates at 60 percent electrical conversion efficiency, the highest in the industry, according to White. “That means we can aim at low cost-high efficiency systems that can compete” with conventional technologies already out in the marketplace.
“We’re not competing with other fuel cell companies, but with internal combustion engines. [Ours] is a disruptive technology to turbines in power generation.”
AFC’s is modular system based on 10 kilowatt-hour (kWh) ‘blocks.’ They’re manufactured using high-grade thermal plastics, “so no special materials are needed,” White explained. “Nothing in our fuel cell is welded, so they’re easily set up and broken down.
“Inherent in our design is reuse-recycle. We seek to have a balance of plant that can build up or reduce with a cartridge that at the moment has a 10 kWh capacity, soon to be 20 kWh, lasting 12 months.
“Then, you take them out and put another one in. We warranty our power stations for 20 years, but theoretically they can last forever.”
The electrodes in AFC’s systems are recyclable. “We clean and reuse them. The catalyst on the electrode is what wears out. They can be hot-swapped.”
AFC’s target for capital and operating expenditures (capex/opex) is less than 4 pence (~6 US cents) per kilowatt-hour, but White believes that AFC will exceed that. “Once we get into mass production, we’ll be able to drive that price down aggressively,” he said.
“Our technology, besides clever design and an enormous amount of IP (intellectual property), is no more difficult than that found in a refrigerator, and the maintenance can be done by [adequately trained] technical and maintenance people,” such as are found in the HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning) industry, White continued.
“Cartridges are no more difficult to make than those used in refrigerators. It’s not so much a manufacturing process as such; it’s an assembly process.”
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