Fuel Cells: Promising, but struggling to catch on

Fuel Cells: Promising, but struggling to catch on

(Yale Climate Connections, 11/21/2016) – Fuel cells have been the next best clean-energy thing for, well, a long time.

A technology with roots in the 1800s and modern-day use in every NASA-manned space flight from Apollo through the end of the space shuttle program, fuel cells just kind of look like a big box. Inside, they electrochemically combine hydrogen and the oxygen from ambient air to create electricity.

The byproducts of that reaction are heat and water. The heat can be recycled into the fuel cell itself and/or used for external heating and cooling – generally referred to as combined heat and power. That makes stationary fuel cells – the kind used for electricity, as opposed to ones used in vehicles – extremely efficient and as clean an energy source as solar and wind. But because the hydrogen source for most fuel cells comes from natural gas, they are generally not considered renewable, leaving them in an environmental limbo.

Joel Rinebold, director of energy initiatives at the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology, where he has championed the state’s fuel-cell industry for years, has said it could take years to make non-natural gas technologies the norm. “We can make hydrogen, and we can make hydrogen fairly easily, and we can make hydrogen fairly easily out of renewable feedstocks. It’s all technically possible, but economically challenging,” he said. “Economics are holding back the technology from increased market penetration.”

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