A few days ago the Energy Department put up $20 million in in support of R&D focusing on hydrogen for the fuel cell electric vehicle market, and now its super high tech, high risk cutting edge funding arm, the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy, is ramping up fuel cell technology with another $33 million.
Weren’t we just saying that FCEVs are here to stay? Although the new ARPA-E round of funding is focused on lowering the cost of stationary fuel cells for the distributed energy generation market, some of the cost-cutting technology could eventually work its way into the mobile fuel cell market.
Why Fuel Cells?
The new round of funding comes under the badass-sounding program REBELS (Reliable Electricity Based on ELectrochemical Systems).
The point of developing low cost fuel cells for stationary energy generation is to help transition the US out of dependency on central power plants and into a more diversified landscape that includes plenty of distributed generation.
Distributed generation builds in resiliency against grid disruptions and it also reduces the expense of transmission lines. Breaking the power supply down into smaller pieces also makes it easier to introduce multiple renewable energy sources into the same area.
Currently, hydrogen fuel cell technology relies heavily on fossil natural gas, which means that stationary fuel cell owners are going to run up against the same fossil fuel issue encountered by many battery EV owners as well as FCEV owners.
However, that could change sooner rather than later. A good chunk of the aforementioned $20 million in Energy Department funding is dedicated to developing non-fossil sources for hydrogen.
Other research efforts are also under way pushing the non-fossil hydrogen angle. We just got an email from our friends over at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory describing a low cost transportable hydrogen production unit that produces hydrogen from bio-derived liquids and we’ll have more on that tomorrow.
REBELS Works The Low Cost Fuel Cell Middle
But, we digress. The new REBELS funding is meant to fill in the research gap between utility-scale fuel cells and mobile fuel cells. The former can operate efficiently at high temperatures and the latter requires low temperatures, which leaves a wide open space for small scale, low cost fuel cells that operate best at intermediate temperatures.
ARPA-E hopes to crank up the intermediate-temperature fuel cell market by focusing on three different areas.
One is the use of low-cost materials and components in fuel cell construction. A lot of the work in this area has to do with reducing the amount of platinum catalyst, or replacing it altogether with something cheaper.
Another is the integration of fuel cell and battery technology. The idea is that by generating and storing energy within the same system, you build up efficiency, cut down energy loss, and respond more quickly to fluctuations in demand.
The third category is one we’re not particularly thrilled about, since it is aimed primarily at applying electrochemical technology to convert methane to liquid fuels or directly into electricity.
Then again, once the renewable natural gas market heats up (including landfill gas and other waste gases), that could be a moot point.