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Published on February 25th, 2015 | by Tina Casey


The Inevitable March Of The Fuel Cell

February 25th, 2015 by  

We’ve been having a lively discussion about fuel cell electric vehicles over here at CleanTechnica, but regardless of our opinions, it looks like fuel cells are beginning to seep into the mainstream marketplace. Take a look at this new palm-sized “Printed Fuel Cell” from the Japanese company FCO Power Inc., and you can see how the technology is ready for its closeup, if not in personal mobility then at least in other market sectors.

solid oxide printed fuel cell 1

The Sustainable Fuel Cell Conundrum Is Solvable

For those of you new to the topic, a fuel cell vehicle is an electric vehicle (FCEV for short), but it uses a chemical reaction to generate electricity on-the-go, rather than storing energy in a battery.

An FCEV is emission-free at the tailpipe, which sounds great and all that, but the technology itself is not necessarily clean. The fuel required to kickstart the reaction is typically hydrogen, sourced from natural gas. Think fracking, fugitive methane emissions, and earthquakes, and you can how that green tailpipe hides a grayish fuel supply chain.

Battery electric vehicles run into similar issues if you juice them up from a grid connection sourced with natural gas, or for that matter coal (petroleum is rarely used for grid-scale generation in the US so we’ll skip over that).

All this is by way of saying that when next-generation EV batteries, fuel cells, and other new mobility technologies get to the mass market, the sustainable fuel supply chain also needs to crank up to speed.

You’re already seeing that dynamic in play as more solar, wind, and other alternative energy options open up for battery electric vehicle owners.

For fuel cells, one solution under way is sourcing hydrogen from renewable biogas. That model lends itself to some wildly imaginative contraptions, such as a solar-powered, hydrogen-producing toilet (thank you, Bill Gates).

Also in the works is a solar-powered chemical reaction that splits hydrogen gas from water, including a “bionic leaf” that mimics photosynthesis.

The New Printed Fuel Cell

Where were we? Oh, right, the new Printed Fuel Cell. The developer, FCO Power Inc., is supported in part by  one of Japan’s leading tech investors, The University of Tokyo Edge Capital. The company’s fuel cell roots go back to 2005, when predecessor FCO Co., Ltd., hooked up with the cutting-edge Japan Fine Ceramics Center.

This is not your father’s ceramics class, by the way. The particular type of fuel cell that FCO Power specializes in is called a solid oxide fuel cell. Like the name says, a solid oxide fuel cell uses a solid, ceramic-based electrolyte instead of a liquid (the electrolyte is the part of a fuel cell or battery that holds the charge).

Solid oxide fuel cells have some advantages over other types of fuel cells, but conventional models are bulky and expensive, both in terms of materials and manufacturing.

FCO appears to have tackled both problems at once with its Printed Fuel Cell. The process involves fabricating an individual fuel cell layer by layer, as in 3-D printing, and then sintering all the layers together at once (sintering refers to a common method for fusing materials together without liquefying them).

The result is a single fuel cell only 0.4 millimeters thick, or about 1/10 the thickness of a conventional fuel cell. According to FCO that whisper-thin profile provides it with an output power density of 5 kilowatts per liter, which is apparently best in its class so far.

Fuel cells are easy to scale up — you literally “stack” them on top of each other. To assemble a fuel cell large enough to power a typical apartment in Japan, FCO created a set of 70-Watt stacks and hooked them together in a 700-Watt system. The whole thing still comes in at only 3 centimeters thick:

solid oxide fuel cell 2

Here’s how FCO envisions its product in Japan:

Use of this next-generation stack makes the hot module thin and compact. This means that it is realistic to develop SOFC systems for existing apartments, such as wall-mounted and porch installation. By leveraging high volumetric power density and low-cost stack technology, FCO Power and its alliance partners aim to commercialize the SOFC system in 2020, the year of the Tokyo Olympics.

The “existing” part of the apartment equation is critical to the FCO business model, as fuel cells are already coming into use for detached homes and newly constructed apartments.

As for the fuel sustainability angle, solid oxide fuel cells can function with different fuels, which opens the door to more renewable sources. They can also tolerate a certain degree of impurity in some fuels.

But What About Personal Mobility?

If you know your fuel cells, you know that solid oxide fuel cells are not considered to be particularly good candidates for vehicles (at least not yet), so we’re not saying that FCO’s product is going to give electric vehicle batteries a run for the money.

However, familiarity with stationery fuel cells is already growing in the US, with more companies and property owners adopting them as a hedge against grid disruptions. Bloom Energy provides a good example in the private sector.

On the mobile front here in the US, Toyota, Hyundai, and other auto makers are only just starting to dip a toe in the FCEV market for individual consumers. The real action is the wave of FCEVs in specialty fleet markets including warehouse operations as well as light and medium-duty trucks.

The Defense Department has also been tackling FCEVs and other fuel cell technologies from a number of different angles, so every year more veterans are cycling out of service and into private life with hands-on experience.

The argument against them is that they inherently can’t match the performance of today’s battery electric vehicles even in the most ideal circumstances, let along tomorrow’s battery electric vehicles. Then there’s also the matter that they need fueling stations… while battery electric vehicles can be charged right at home.

But we’ll see what the future holds, in terms of mobility and home storage.

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Image Credit: Courtesy of FCO Power Inc.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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