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Fuel Cells Could Power Your Neighborhood

June 12, 2012 | Northwest Public Radio
CONTRIBUTED BY:
Courtney Flatt

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  • Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s new, small-scale solid oxide fuel cell system can achieve up to 57 percent efficiency partly because it uses a heat exchanger with PNNL-developed microchannel technology. credit: Flickr Creative Commons: PNNL - Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s new, small-scale solid oxide fuel cell system can achieve up to 57 percent efficiency partly because it uses a heat exchanger with PNNL-developed microchannel technology. | credit: Flickr Creative Commons: PNNL - Pacific Northwest National Laboratory | rollover image for more

Want to get off the grid without giving up your suburban or city lifestyle? Researchers have developed a fuel cell that could one day power your neighborhood.

They wanted to find a power source that could provide energy closer to homes. So they began experimenting with solid oxide fuel cells.

Solid Oxide Fuel Cell System
Photo: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Scientists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., found that these fuel cells could be two- to three-times more efficient than a traditional power plant.

“As soon as you come down and you’re doing something smaller-scale, there are very few technologies out there, if any besides fuel cells, that can do that with a high efficiency,” says chief engineer Vincent Sprenkle.

One reason is there would be a small distribution of power with these systems. People generally don’t want coal or natural gas plants in their backyard, and so utilities have to build long transmission lines. That can cost around $1 million a mile, Sprenkle says.

But the fuel cells would only stand about eight-feet high and wouldn’t have many emissions, Sprenkle says. That would eliminate the need for transmission lines.

Another reason less energy goes to waste is the mechanics of a fuel cell. Combustion technology must use moving parts to generate electricity. But in a fuel cell energy is generated from a chemical reaction, Sprenkle says. No moving parts needed.

Right now, some warehouses in the United States use similar technology. That’s because fuel cells don’t need to be plugged into the grid. Apple just announced its new data center in Maiden, N.C., will be powered by fuel cells.

truckfc
Fuel cells power truck ACs and TVs. | Delphi Corp.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory researchers are also conducting field experiments with fuel cells in long-haul trucks. Regulations in twenty-one states prevent trucks from idling at night – to provide power for TVs and air conditioners. So, scientists are hoping fuel cells will provide a greener power source.

If houses began using fuel cells, Sprenkle says, smart grid could come into play. He says smart grid technology could be more easily managed with small-scale fuel cells powering 50 homes, than with power plants powering 50,000 homes.

One hundred homes in Japan and 200 homes in Germany are already using fuel cells.

© 2012 Northwest Public Radio
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory fuel cell
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