RPI demonstration shows potential of fuel cells

Renewable energy research being performed at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is making technology o

Renewable energy research being performed at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is making technology of the future a reality today.

In hopes of creating cheaper, cleaner, and more efficient sources of renewable energy, students and staff at the school’s Center for Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Research Lab showcased their work at a demonstration Monday.

The lab does research on how to create, test, manufacture, and design fuel cells and their systems. A fuel cell is an energy conversion device that produces electricity and heat for use in different applications.

“Health, fresh water, and energy will be the main issues of the future,” said Daniel Lewis, the center’s director and assistant professor of materials science and engineering. “I believe fuel cells will be one of our best bets at preserving energy because there are not very many high-efficiency energy conversion processes out there.”

The size of the fuel cell and its system, how much power it creates and how they are designed, depends solely on its application. Lewis said developers and consumers must work together closely to create a fuel cell system that meets the needs of what is being powered.

The “green” energy sources are efficient because “unlike batteries, fuel cells are don’t run out of power. They continue to operate as long as fuel is supplied.”

One demonstration showed a hydrogen fuel cell system, the most common type, powering a nearby laptop computer.

Casey Hoffman, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering, said the stacked fuel cells in the system were producing about 720 watts of power using 3.9 liters of hydrogen per minute.

“People may think that’s a lot, but the gas is compressed,” said Hoffman. “That tank could last for days.”

Hoffman said he has more faith in fuel cell power than other renewable energy sources like wind or solar energy because it is “constantly reliable.”

“Solar power can only be used when the sun is out and wind power can only be used when it’s windy,” he said. “But we can produce hydrogen from solar and wind power and store that energy for use another day in a fuel cell.”

Fuel cells convert chemical energy from a fuel like hydrogen into electrical energy through an oxidation agent. Heat and water are produced as waste.

Steve Buelte, who graduated from the Ph.D. program in May, said currently the most common use of fuel cells is to power forklifts. He said because the emissions are practically nonexistent, fuel cells are ideal in a warehouse environment. Also, workers prefer the fuel cells over batteries because pay is often based on the amount of work finished each day and not hourly. Unlike with a battery, there is no time wasted re-charging a fuel cell.

Some grocery stores have also implemented the renewable energy source.

In 2008, Golub Corp. installed a 27-by-9-by-10-foot fuel cell system into its Price Chopper store at the Colonie Plaza on Central Avenue. Provided by UTC Power in South Windsor, Conn., the system is capable of generating 60 percent of the building’s power. The company also added fuel cells at it Glenville store earlier this year.

Buelte said the fuel cells are even more efficient when stores use the produced heat as space heating, or convert it to cool freezers.

As with all forms of energy, there are down sides to fuel cells. Some people may feel leery of having a highly explosive hydrogen tank so close to their homes or businesses.

“If you take the proper safety measures there’s really no cause for concern, just like any other gas running through a building,” said Hoffman. “Gasoline is much more dense and yet you got in your car and drove here. I bet you didn’t think twice that your gas tank might explode.”

Since fuel cells also use natural gas to operate, another problem could be where and how that gas in obtained.

“A potential issue could be hydrofracking since methane can be used to create hydrogen,” said Buelte. “It really all depends on the fuel choice. Hopefully we can clean up the process.”

Lewis said there currently isn’t a retail market for fuel cells, although there are obviously facilities that manufacture them, like Latham-based Plug Power. The price of a system varies depending on what it is being used to power.

“Sometimes a manufacturer will partner with a consumer and provide the system for free if they can collect its data,” said Lewis. “Those are the stages we are at.”

The center continues to promote fuel cell energy as the renewable source of the future and to help people become more knowledgeable about the process.

Categories: Schenectady County

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