With fuel cells increasingly becoming a hot topic, we asked Rami Reshef to share his thoughts about the technology.
Q: Hydrogen based fuel cell technology seems to be a hot topic at the moment, especially in the automotive market, what are your thoughts on this?
RR: The automotive industry sees great potential in fuel cells. No doubt this is the result of growing consumer concern for the environmental effect of car emissions. In general, transport is responsible for 12% of carbon dioxide emissions in Europe and more than 20% in the USA. As a result, governments are keen to reduce these figures, putting pressure on manufacturers to invest in fossil fuel alternative technologies. Hydrogen-based fuel cells have become one way to achieve this.
Fuel cells are not a new technology and have been very successfully used in other markets. NASA pioneered the use of Alkaline-fuel cells in its Apollo program in the 1960’s, using them to provide the electricity to power onboard equipment—as well as drinking water. Fuel cells offered extreme reliability while batteries were simply too heavy and couldn’t provide the necessary lifespan.
Q: What has prohibited the wider adoption of fuel cell technology in other markets?
RR: In the early days of fuel cell development, the promise of the technology was huge and many businesses were attracted to its many benefits. However, as scientists tried to commercialize the technology, issues with scalability and manufacturability became apparent.
As a result, early adopters didn’t receive the promised benefits of the technology and the reputation of fuel cells as a viable alternative power was tarnished. But as with most new technology introductions, lessons were learned and vendors redesigned and refined the technology to overcome the earlier issues enabling fuel cells to compete with more conventional technologies such as diesel generators.
Q: What have fuel cell manufacturers overcome to enable fuel cells to be a saleable, commercial technology?
RR: While I can’t speak for other companies, our team at GenCell has succeeded in developing several patented solutions that have enabled us to reduce our CAPEX and OPEX costs. These include the use of a non-platinum catalyst, as well as mechanisms for using plain air as an oxidizer and lower-cost industrial-grade hydrogen as a fuel.
In addition, the increased emphasis on sustainable energy and growing demand for hydrogen has led to the deployment of new hydrogen distribution systems in Japan, California and other US states. This should eventually help reduce distribution costs of hydrogen that currently make it more expensive than gasoline or methane for commercial usage.
Q: Which markets and applications will be most affected by fuel cell technology?
RR: The possibilities for fuel cell applications are almost endless – just about anywhere you use energy – but there are already a few key markets where the technology is gaining significant adoption and maturity. These include the transport and automotive industries, industrial power generation and backup power for critical systems at utilities, telecoms and others.
Indeed, the challenges of aging electrical grids in many parts of our very connected world, makes a steady supply of electricity imperative. For many industries, the cost of business failure outweighs the cost of a business continuity solution. This is especially true at telecom providers where the business model is pay-per-use (talk). For them, network downtime causes a complete cessation of revenue and is extremely expensive. For electricity providers and other utility companies, grid downtime is extremely expensive too – and not just to utilities. In 2015, grid failures cost an estimated USD 110 billion to the US economy.
Q: Are all fuel cell technologies equally applicable for these markets?
RR: Each fuel cell technology has its distinct advantages that make it better for specific applications. For instance, PEM (Polymer Electrolyte Membrane) is a low-temperature fuel cell technology that operates between 80-100 degrees Celsius and is relatively small and light-weight. As such it is used in applications such as forklifts trucks, portable lighting rigs and more. It is also being used by major car manufacturers like Toyota, Honda and others for hydrogen-powered cars. Other technologies, like molten carbonate and solid oxide fuel cells, operate at 650 and 1000 degrees respectively and are used mainly for constant power in large utility applications.
GenCell uses alkaline fuel cell (AFC) technology, another low-temperature type of fuel cell. Alkaline fuel cells are extremely reliable and highly efficient, in fact the most energy efficient of all fuel cell technologies. In addition, they are highly resilient to extreme temperatures, humidity and air salinity. This makes them an ideal fuel cell technology for providing green backup energy in the event of a power failure. In the future, the technology has even greater potential for additional usages beyond backup applications.
Q: What are the main barriers to widespread fuel cell adoption in the short term?
RR: In our mind, education is a primary challenge. There is still a lot of misinformation out there surrounding modern fuel cell technology. When we meet with new prospects we explain how we have been able overcome the previous technology limitations to make modern fuel cells one of the cleanest, most reliable, robust, and highly efficient power sources available. We also show them how fuel cells are being adopted by many international market leading businesses.
We also talk to them about hydrogen in general. We explain that it’s the lightest and most abundant element in the universe, considered the most environmentally friendly fuel and is as safe or even safer than gasoline or natural gas (methane). In addition, we also educate them about sourcing hydrogen and compare its costs to other energy alternatives such as solar, wind, batteries and diesel. Once we’re done, the fuel cell business case is so compelling that the cost of a fuel cell to minimize the impact of power loss becomes a very obvious and sensible decision.