The emergence of cars like the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt have generated a lot of buzz for electric drive vehicles lately. But hydrogen fuel cells, seen by many as one of the most promising long-term clean driving solutions, are making their way into new cars as well. The development of hydrogen technology has not been limited to the automotive field however, and in fact, some of the most interesting fuel cell research involves onions and beer.
Hydrogen is the simplest element and most plentiful gas in the universe. Because it can be produced from readily-available domestic sources, including natural gas, biomass and even water…and thanks to its low emissions...it's an attractive alternative to burning gasoline or diesel.
General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, Honda, and others continue to lead the way in developing hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles, and several have FCEVs on the road now. Mazda has shown a bi-fuel RX-8 sports car that's modified to run on either gaseous hydrogen or gasoline at the flip of a switch.
Despite these advances however, the widespread use of hydrogen in our cars and trucks is still a few years away. But fuel cell technology is a reality now in applications like specialty vehicles, auxiliary power, standby power generators and for supplying power and heat to buildings.
In warehouse operations, like the Defense Logistics Agency's massive distribution facilities, working indoors requires a non-polluting solution. Here, a test fleet of hydrogen fuel cell electric forklifts runs alongside their standard battery-electric counterparts.
Instead of swapping battery packs when their charge is depleted, these clean lifting machines are able to refuel with hydrogen right inside the building in a fraction of the time.
Stationary fuel cells can provide highly-reliable, grid-independent power for buildings and longer standby or emergency power compared to batteries.
Aside from producing some of America's finest beers, Sierra Nevada Brewery has installed one of the largest fuel cell power applications in the country. Their four, 250-kilowatt units provide electric power to the brewery, and waste heat from the fuel cells is captured and used in the brewing process as well.
CHERI CHASTAIN: Fuel cells are really, really great in applications where you need electricity, and where you need heat 24/7, 365 days a year. The fuel cells are producing about 50 percent of our power needs, and they come directly here to the brewery for whatever we need power for, whether its brewing or bottling, fermentation, anything that we need electricity for.
Gill's Onions in Oxnard, California has developed an award-winning waste-to-energy project. 100 percent of their onion waste, up to 300,000 pounds-per-day, is converted into biogas to make hydrogen that in turn, powers a pair of 300-kilowatt fuel cells. Their electric bill has been reduced by $700,000 per year, and additional environmental savings were achieved by eliminating the need to truck away tons of onion waste.
Another emerging application for fuel cells is in auxiliary power units for big rigs. Fuel cells are easily scalable to fit this application, and using a fuel cell to provide hotel power to the sleeper compartment has obvious environmental benefits.
Delphi's solid oxide system makes hydrogen for the fuel cell from the truck's onboard diesel supply by oxidizing, not burning the fuel--reducing both consumption and emissions compared to idling.
Here at the National Wind Technology Center, part of the National Renewable Energy Lab in Boulder, Colorado, wind turbines produce the energy needed to extract hydrogen from water.
KEVIN HARRISON: Wind turbines are naturally varying. They produce energy 80 percent of their life, but it's not always at their full capacity. So, what's nice about hydrogen and the flexibility of hydrogen is we can use the energy in wind to produce hydrogen, store it for later, and use it when we need it most.
Hydrogen is made and stored on-site and used to power a pair of shuttle buses for employees and VIPs. These hydrogen fueled buses are up to 25 percent more efficient than similar gas-powered vans.
The Connecticut Science Center uses a 200 kilowatt fuel cell to generate all of its power needs and even sells some electricity back to the grid. And in keeping with its educational mission, the museum's fuel cell was made a working part of their Energy City exhibit gallery and is cloaked in descriptive graphics that explain the technology.
All of these near-term applications are important milestones in the development and commercialization of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies, and are driving demand for a national hydrogen fuel infrastructure, just as fuel cell use in other countries is ramping up.
Japan already has 5000 fuel cells for power, heat, and hot water in homes, and South Korea expects to create half-a-million new jobs in the coming years.. just for the fuel cell industry.
The promise of hydrogen-fueled vehicles has yet to be fully realized, but as we've seen, these diverse, non-automotive fuel cell deployments are proving the technology is viable - and pointing the way to our sustainable clean driving future!