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News

Low cost fuel for home and cost to be developed

Georgia Institute Of Technology : 15 January, 2002  (New Product)
Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology imagine a time in the near future when home electricity isn't supplied by a far-flung, gigantic power plant, rather, by a personal generator attached to a house and about the size of an air-conditioning unit. They also see the same technology replacing the fuel and battery that powers cars.
Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology imagine a time in the near future when home electricity isn't supplied by a far-flung, gigantic power plant, rather, by a personal generator attached to a house and about the size of an air-conditioning unit. They also see the same technology replacing the fuel and battery that powers cars.

Working to make this technology a reality, a Georgia Tech team is developing advanced power generator units for homes and cars that use fuel cells to produce long-lasting power for less cost than most generators currently on the market.

Research and development for fuel cell cogeneration units, which convert hydrogen fuel and oxygen into electricity and heat, are booming now more than ever. A relatively young technology, massive 200-kilowatt fuel-cell units are being installed commercially today, mostly in large businesses and industries. However, high costs largely have largely kept the technology from entering residential markets.

Fuel cells are considered among the most innovative technologies for powering advanced vehicles because water is their only emission. They won the support of the Bush Administration, which cited the technology as cleaner and more efficient, with the ability to reduce urban air pollution, decrease oil imports and provide an uninterrupted flow of energy.

The U.S. Department of Energy last year announced a 10-year, $500 million initiative to create innovative fuel cells that will cut current cost barriers and move the advanced, low-polluting technology into mainstream energy markets.

As part of the initiative, two researchers at Georgia Tech's Center for Innovative Fuel Cell and Battery Technologies were selected to take the technology used to create the high-powered fuel cell generator systems and miniaturize it for use in an average home or automobile.

Georgia Tech Engineering Professors Meilin Liu and Jack Winnick are part of a team led by Siemens Westinghouse Power Corp. The Energy Department provided the Siemens Westinghouse team with $47.8 million to develop Solid Oxide Fuel Cells for residential and automotive use.

Specifically, the team will develop a 7- to 10-kilowatt heat and power system for residential use and a 3- to 10-kilowatt auxiliary power unit for use in cars.

'Fuel cells are the cleanest, most efficient and versatile technologies for converting chemical energy directly to electricity,' Liu said. 'This type of technology would basically replace the furnace in your house and supply all the power needed at a cheaper cost, with higher fuel efficiency and no emissions.'

Liu said the residential application could be introduced to the market as auxiliary units. Ultimately, however, the fuel cell units would be the sole power supply for homes, making them independent of power plants, he said.

The same technology could replace the fuel and battery that power cars.

'In the car, this type of technology would significantly increase energy efficiency while dramatically reducing pollutant emission,' Liu said.

Fuel cells can operate on a variety of gaseous and liquid fuels to generate electricity and heat. Although a fuel cell operates like a battery, it does not run down or require recharging. It will produce energy as long as fuel is supplied.

'For the most part, the technology is there,' Liu said. 'It's just the matter of reducing costs so it would be economically competitive. To dramatically reduce the cost, the operating temperature of SOFCs has to be sufficiently low so that the interconnect, heat exchangers, and other structure components may be fabricated from relatively inexpensive metallic materials. For low temperature operation, development of catalytically active electrodes and interfaces is essential. Further, the cost of fabrication has to be significantly reduced as well.'

Because fuel cells don't rely on combustion and operate much more efficiently than traditional power plants, they release 25 to 50 percent less heat-trapping carbon dioxide than today's natural gas or coal-fired power generators.

Why isn't fuel cell technology used more widely? Industry experts agree that for fuel cells to become commercially viable, they must reliably operate for a minimum of five years and must also be cost effective and competitive with other types of electric power generation equipment.

'While the existing fuel cell technologies have demonstrated much higher energy efficiency with minimal pollutant emission over conventional energy technologies, the cost of the current fuel cell systems is still prohibitive for wide commercial applications,' Liu said. 'Fuel cells are about ten times more expensive than conventional energy technologies, such as today's natural gas or coal-fired power generators or power plants.'

Most fuel cells are custom manufactured and assembled individually, a labor-intensive and expensive operation, and use various types of liquid acids or molten salts inside the fuel cell to generate electricity. The Energy Department says that developing an all-solid-state fuel cell 'building block' that can be mass-manufactured is one of the best ways to dramatically lower costs much like advances in solid state technology have cut the costs of computers and other electronics.

The companies partnering with Georgia Tech under Siemens Westinghouse are: Fuel Cell Technologies; Blasch Precision Ceramics; Lennox Industries; the Trane Company; Dominion Resources; Ford Motor Company; Eaton Corporation and Newport News.
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