Fuel Cells to Heat and Power Homes


When looking into off-the-grid heating and power sources for the home, those interested might soon be getting a new option. The Dresden, Germany-based Fraunhofer Institute for Ceramic Technologies and Systems (IKTS) has joined forces with the heater manufacturer Vaillant and together they have come up with a domestic fuel cell system, which uses natural gas to produce both heat and electricity.

Fuel cells are more efficient and have lower emissions than internal combustion engines, but they have, until now, been too expensive and complicated to manufacture effectively for widespread adoption. Now, the Fraunhofer Institute has developed a domestic fuel cell, which is simple to construct and install, and also easy to maintain. It runs on natural gas.

The fuel cell system developed by Fraunhofer is based on the solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) technology. It uses ceramic electrolyte to produce electricity as oxygen combines with hydrogen, while these fuel cells also work at a higher temperature than others. Proton exchange membrane fuel cells (PEMFCs), which are used in cars, can only reach a temperature of 176⁰ F, but SOFCs can reach a temperature of up 1,562⁰ F. In a domestic environment this high temperature can be used to keep the home warm, or to heat the water. Ceramics can withstand extreme temperatures, and can be used to manufacture these SOFCs, which in turn makes the fuel cells easier to make and cheaper to use. With other fuel cells, platinum or other precious metals act as the catalyst, which makes them more expensive.

The Fraunhofer fuel cells are very low power and produce less than a volt of electricity, meaning that they need to be placed into stacks. In a home, the SOFCs would be attached to the domestic gas supply. Upon entering the system, a reformer breaks up the gas into a hydrogen-rich mixture, which reacts with the stack in a process known as “cold combustion” that produces heat and electricity. An afterburner is also a part of this process and works to increase efficiency from the exhaust gases.

The current design of this system is only the size of a conventional gas heater and can also be installed in the same place as the gas heater. Apart from heat, it also produces 1 kilowatt of energy per cell, which is enough to sustain a family of four. They are currently testing this new heater in 150 homes across Europe as part of the Callux practice test to see how well it performs in a home. Before mass production begins, Fraunhofer and Vaillant would still like to find a way to reduce the cost of the fuel cells and increase their lifespan.

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3 EV Trends to Know For Car-Buying Season

Toyota recently unveiled this 2015 FCEV at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Photo credit: Union of Concerned Scientists

Springtime is the time of year where we start to see the first signs of growth; the green shoots of what will turn into a verdant garden or a bountiful harvest. As the first quarter of 2014 comes to a close, we are seeing some encouraging signs that both electric vehicle sales and their benefits will continue to grow this year.

Fuel cell vehicles are coming

Toyota and Hyundai will be rolling out their new fuel cell vehicles within a year. Hyundai’s hydrogen-powered SUV will be leased in Southern California starting this spring and Toyota will follow with a sporty sedan in early 2015 in “significant numbers,” according to the manufacturer.

Hydrogen fuel cells marry the advantages of clean, efficient electric vehicles with the convenience of fast refueling. Hydrogen made today from natural gas gives about the same total emissions per mile as charging a plug-in vehicle with electricity generated from natural gas. But hydrogen can (and will, based on California’s renewable hydrogen requirements) also be made from renewable sources like biomass and solar power, so in the future hydrogen-powered vehicles will be even cleaner.

A key advantage of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles is that they can be refueled at a filling station in a short time. This means that drivers who would rather not plug in a battery electric car can still use a clean electric motor to get around. The filling time is about the same as a gasoline vehicle, about five to ten minutes for a 300-mile range.

The U.S. has almost 200,000 electric vehicles on the road. Graphic credit: Union of Concerned Scientists

The U.S. has almost 200,000 electric vehicles on the road. Graphic credit: Union of Concerned Scientists

EV sales doubled in 2013 and more plug-in models are on the horizon

Sales of EVs, including both plug-in hybrids and battery electrics, continue to rise. More than 90,000 EVs were sold in the U.S. in 2013—more than double 2012 EV sales. In California, sales of EVs also increased more than 100 percent in 2013 compared to the previous year, and the state was home to nearly half (46 percent) of all new plug-in vehicles in the U.S. In 2013, plug-in cars were 2.5 percent of new vehicle sales in California.

Looking forward to 2014, new models of EVs will hit showrooms this year. BMW is already reporting significant interest in its upcoming battery electric i3 car and other EVs from Kia, Cadillac and VW are either in showrooms or on the way. As new models and types of electric vehicles become available, consumers will have more choices to reduce fuel costs and emissions than ever before.

Monthly sales volumes of EVs are increasing rapidly. Graphic credit: Union of Concerned Scientists

Monthly sales volumes of EVs are increasing rapidly. Graphic credit: Union of Concerned Scientists

The benefits of electric vehicles are growing

Electric vehicles are reducing oil consumption and global warming emissions while saving consumers millions of dollars at the pump. Americans have purchased almost 170,000 plug-in vehicles in the last three years. These vehicles are avoiding the burning of 45 million gallons of gasoline per year and saving Americans over $100 million per year in avoided fuel costs.

Californians have saved the most, cutting $40 million in annual fuel costs and reducing emissions of carbon dioxide by 140 thousand tons per year.

If the spring’s trends continue, these benefits will only increase.


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Green Hydrogen Fuel Thanks To Microorganisms In Salt Flats?

This article has been reposted from Green Building Elements sister site CleanTechnica.

Bacteriorhodopsin — an intriguing protein found within the membranes of the ancient microorganisms living in the desert salt flats of California and Nevada — may allow for the cheap, efficient production of “environmentally friendly” hydrogen fuel from nothing but sunlight and saltwater, according to new research from the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory.

The pink color of salt lakes is caused by salt-loving microorganisms, called halobacteria. Image Credit: DOE/Argonne National Laboratory

The pink color of salt lakes is caused by salt-loving microorganisms, called halobacteria.
Image Credit: DOE/Argonne National Laboratory

By combining bacteriorhodopsin with semiconducting nano-particles, the researchers were able to create a new system that utilizes light to spark a catalytic process that results in hydrogen fuel being produced.

The great potential of titanium dioxide nanoparticles, with regard to light-based reactions, has long been known to those in the scientific community, at least as far back as the early 1970s, when researchers learned that, by exposing a titanium dioxide electrode to bright ultraviolet light, you could “split” water molecules into its component elements — a phenomenon now known as the Honda-Fujishima effect.

Since that discovery, much work has been done in an attempt to “extend the light reactivity of titanium dioxide photocatalysts into the visible part of the spectrum,” Argonne National Laboratory writes. ”The promise of these photocatalysts prompted scientists to experiment with different modifications to their basic chemistry in hope of making the reaction more efficient.”

“Titanium dioxide alone reacts with ultraviolet light, but not with visible light, so we used biological photoreactive molecules as a building block to create a hybrid system that could use visible light efficiently,” stated Argonne researcher Elena Rozhkova.

It was for this purpose that the researchers turned to bacteriorhodopsin — the protein responsible for the strange purple color seen in many of the salt flats throughout California and Nevada. Bacteriorhodopsin utilizes sunlight as a means of powering its function as a “proton pump” — proton pumps are the proteins “that typically straddle a cellular membrane and transfer protons from inside the cell to the extracellular space.”

Image Credit: Argonne National Laboratory

Image Credit: Argonne National Laboratory

In the new system, the protons that are provided by the bacteriorhodopsin are then combined “with free electrons at small platinum sites interspersed in the titanium dioxide matrix.”

“The platinum nanoparticles are essential for creating a distinct spot for the production of the hydrogen molecule,” stated Peng Wang, a researcher at Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials.

“It is interesting that in biology, bacteriorhodopsin does not naturally participate in these kind of reactions,” Rozhkova stated. “Its natural function really doesn’t have much to do at all with creating hydrogen. But as part of this hybrid, it helps make hydrogen under white light and at environmentally friendly conditions.”

The newly created bio-assisted hybrid photocatalyst has been found to perform considerably better than most other similar systems that are currently out there. The researchers think that the new system could be a cost-effective means of producing hydrogen fuel — utilizing the world’s enormous resources of light and saltwater for the production of “green” energy.

Fuel Cells Provided Backup Power During Hurricane Sandy

The U.S. Department of Energy talks about how fuel cells were instrumental in providing backup power for cell towers and keeping cell phone communications open during Sandy.

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