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Fuel cell technology, its markets and applications

Fuel cell technology, its markets and applications

As CEO of a company manufacturing fuel cell solutions from sub 1kW to 100kW, you can probably imagine I am often asked to describe the technology. While people are aware of fuel cells, what they actually are and how they work is still a mystery to many. Ultimately, a fuel cell system is a black box that will give an output of DC electrical power as long as it supplied with hydrogen and oxygen. The only by-products are heat and water. At Intelligent Energy (IE), we develop and manufacture proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells and these are the most widely deployed in commercial applications today and the ones that are used in transport applications.

Fuel cell stacks are constructed from numerous cells – not too dissimilar to a battery. Each cell typically operates in the range of 0.55-0.8V depending on the electrical load demand and generates current of approximately 1-2A/cm2. A typical fuel cell electric car would have about 250-400 plates and the gross power of the fuel cell stack is calculated by multiplying the voltage and current by the cell count in each stack with about 25% parasitics taken mainly for the air delivery system, for cooling fans and various fluid pumps. Fuel cells are highly scalable and as well as adding more cells within a stack, multiple stacks can be combined to meet an applications power requirement. Different cooling methods are used for different sizes of stacks, below about 10kW systems are simple and usually air-cooled, between 10kW and 200kW the cooling is liquid based.

Fuel cells have been around for well over 150 years, but it is really only recently we are starting to see them come to the fore and ready for commercial use. In my three years here at Intelligent Energy, I have seen significant strides and every day sees more announcements heralding fuel cell developments and new partnerships in industries like automotive, aerospace, marine, and off-road vehicle and construction as companies within these industries look to zero emission power solutions.

Here in the UK, we are seeing the construction industry embrace fuel cells as a viable alternative to diesel generators. Fuel cell power is being integrated into portable solutions like lighting towers, welfare cabins and generator systems. Industries like construction need reliable power off-grid and what fuel cells offer is just that, combined with zero emissions and quiet operation. For instance, HS2, the multi-billion pound high speed railway system presently under construction in the UK, currently has our fuel cells operating in their site welfare cabins.

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