Using biodiesel as well as regular diesel in a fuel cell is for many an incredible idea. The Research Council of Norway’s RENERGI program Technical Director Dag Øvrebø is developing a new type of electric power supply unit with core components of a smart diesel reformer and a tolerant fuel cell. The system is environmentally friendly and flexible; the unit could be a serious contender in the market for generators in electric vehicles and other applications.
The combination of two advanced technologies is now undergoing testing. In trials, a 200-watt solid-acid fuel cell ran on both pure hydrogen and on hydrogen produced from diesel by the unit’s reformer – with only an insignificant difference in performance. The system is another handy way to solve the hydrogen production and storage issue as well as keep consumers access to abundant fuels used at very high efficiencies.
Diesel is a hydrocarbon thus CO2 is an issue. The reformer section converts the hydrocarbons into hydrogen, CO2 and heat. Due to the unit’s high efficiency, CO2 emissions are substantially lower than in conventional combustion engines, and no other demonstrable exhaust is discharged – meaning that diesel particulates, black carbon soot, nitrous oxide (NOx) and carbon monoxide (CO) are eliminated. An added plus is that the reformer emits no smoke or odor. And, it’s dead silent.
The silent electric generator is being developed and produced by the Norwegian company Nordic Power Systems (NPS). The new type of fuel cell is being developed and delivered from the California firm SAFCell. The development of solid-based acid fuel cells (SAFC) was pioneered in the Haile Lab of the Material Science Department at Caltech. Dr. Calum Chisholm, together with a team of experienced scientists, engineers, and business executives founded SAFCell to bring the technology to the market in November of 2009. Things are moving very fast – it not been a year yet and the prototype field test units are being built.
The story runs back in time, beginning in Germany. In 2006 the NPS founders came across an interesting conversion technology developed at RWTH Aachen University in the late 1990s. NPS acquired the licensing rights, envisioning a clear market potential for an electric power supply unit based on a fuel cell that is not dependent on hydrogen filling stations, and that can run on regular, easily available fuel without surrendering the environmental benefits of fuel cells.
Then in 2009 NPS secured usage rights to the new U.S. solid-acid fuel cell technology for use with various fuel types such as diesel and biofuels.
Tor-Geir Engebretsen, Managing Director and co-founder of NPS, is very pleased with the summer of 2010’s tests. “Now we have demonstrated that the solid-acid technology works. The next step is to test a larger unit of 1- 200 watts.”
Now it gets really interesting – Engebretsen points out that since the technology is scalable, it is well suited for future generators in electric vehicles. But NPS is taking the development in stages. The company’s first market is power supply for the defense industry. NPS has secured a technology development agreement with the Royal Norwegian Armed Forces. In addition, NPS has a product development agreement with Marshall Land Systems, of the U.K., with the aim of supplying silent-running generators for the British Armed Forces. While the U.S. Department of Defense isn’t involved, one can be certain they’re watching.
If all goes according to plan, the reformer unit being developed with Marshall Land Systems will be ready for market launch by mid-2011, while the solid-acid fuel cell will be phased in somewhat later. An assembly plant in Høyanger, Norway, is scheduled to open in early 2012 with Industrial Development Corporation of Norway (SIVA) as the contractor.
NPS currently has seven employees in Norway, and six in the USA through a contract with SAFCell in California.
Getting from the oily diesel to a fuel cell hydrogen intake is a challenge. The evaporation of diesel is the most challenging step in a diesel reformer. The NPS cool flame reformer uses a new, unique concept for evaporating and mixing the diesel with air and steam. Avoiding inhomogeneous mixtures of air and steam, partial evaporation of the diesel, or a total ignition in the evaporation stage, are critical to the stability and functionality of the materials and catalysts applied.
In the first week of August, 2010, SAFCell delivered a 250 watt stack to NPS’ testing facility in Porsgrunn, Norway. The SAFC stack was integrated and tested with NPS’ proprietary cool flame diesel reformer system, converting the chemical energy of the diesel fuel directly into electrical power.
Solid-acid fuel cells utilize an anhydrous, nonpolymeric proton-conducting electrolyte that can operate at slightly elevated temperatures. Supporting thin CsH2PO4 electrolyte membranes at about 25-36 µm on porous stainless steel gas-diffusion electrodes, SAFCs can attain peak power densities as high as 415 mW/cm2.
While the current state of the development is proprietary, earlier study claims were high at 0.91-1.01 V. Those results transformed SAFCs from laboratory curiosities into highly competitive energy conversion devices. With six years of research and development now invested its no surprise that the SAFC is about ready for field tests.
The impact of a fuel cell generator that could fill up at most any station using likely the full range of middle distillates from kerosene to jet to #2 diesel – plus a wide range of bio products is an intriguing idea that’s just loaded with potential. A full study vehicle with a reformer-SAFC system, some storage and electric drive propulsion yielding some efficiency numbers would be fascinating. Plus the reformer-SAFC system yields heat solving a major electric drive problem and technology developments are offering better heat energy recovery all the time.
The Norwegians and Californians deserve some applause. This is looking more like widely adoptable technology with each step.
By. Brian Westenhaus