Fuel Cell Basics
What is a fuel cell?
A fuel cell is an electrochemical device and is in some ways like a battery. The fuel cell process uses hydrogen as fuel and oxygen to create electricity, heat and water. The engine of a fuel cell system is called the fuel cell “stack”. The fuel cell stack contains many cells each of which are made with two electrodes (anode and cathode) that sandwich an electrolyte. However unlike a battery a fuel cell always requires a fuel supply (typically hydrogen) which passes over the anode while oxygen (air) passes over the cathode. The cathode unites the hydrogen with oxygen and creates water. The electrons create an electrical current that can be used for power.
As the hydrogen gas is fed into the anode, hydrogen atoms are split into a proton and an electron, taking different paths to arrive on the opposite side of the cell at the cathode. The electrolyte acts as a barrier to the electron but allows the proton to pass into the cathode. The cathode unites the hydrogen with oxygen and creates water. The electrons create an electrical current that can be used for power.
What are the cost benefits of a First Element fuel cell?
Fuel cell systems have longer life spans than batteries or fossil fuel generators; payback is often achieved before a battery or generator replacement cycle.
Fuel cells often cost less than battery installations when backup power run-time requirements are longer than 6-8 hours.
When using liquid methanol or ammonia as a fuel it is often cheaper than propane and diesel fuel.
Fuel cell systems have very low maintenance requirements compared to gas or diesel generators which also reduce service trips onsite and do not have costly oil, fuel and anti-freeze disposal costs.
First Element’s fuel cells can be managed, operated and maintained remotely from the factory or your central control room or office reducing costly down time and maintenance costs.
Being emissions free, fuel cells are generators that can be used in air quality districts where other forms of fossil fuel generators are not permitted.
What are some other fuel cell benefits?
Environmentally Friendly – Because there are no other by-products besides water and heat, fuel cells are an extremely clean source of power. In addition, fuel cells typically produce far less noise than a traditional generator.
Reliability – fuel cells can achieve much higher reliability than traditional fossil fuel generators.
Fuel Flexibility – In times of regional emergencies, fuels like diesel and gasoline can become scarce. Hydrogen, methanol or ammonia are often times still readily available for use because it is not in demand as transport fuel.
Lightweight – As an alternative to batteries, fuel cells are lightweight which can be critical for power needs located on roofs of tall buildings. In addition when longer run times are needed fuel cells take up much less space than batteries.
Longer Lifespan compared to batteries – Traditional batteries have a limited lifespan which can be shortened by exposure to hot and cold environments. Fuel cells have extended life in comparison and have a wider operating range in terms of temperature.
Disposal Issues – Batteries usually require special handling for disposal. Most fuel cells do not require this type of special disposal.
Can a First Element Energy PEM fuel cell be used for backup DC or AC power?
Yes, our fuel cells can be used for backup DC power applications or they can use an inverter to create AC power to backup systems in this manner. All fuel cells produce DC power and can be connected directly onto a DC bus. Typical installations require a DC converter to match the fuel cell’s output voltage to the load requirement, eg. 24 or 48 volts. For an AC power installation it will also typically require the use of an automated transfer switch and possibly a matching transformer to match the desired AC line voltage. Fuel cells replace fossil fuel generators and backup batteries or act as a battery supplement in a cell tower or telecommunications switch site application.
Can a First Element PEM fuel cell be used as a UPS (uninterruptable power supply)?
Yes, our fuel cells can be used as a UPS with some additional equipment and bridging batteries.
Are there codes for siting and installing a fuel cell?
Yes, NFPA 2 and 55 (National Fire Protection Association) are often the most commonly used with respect to hydrogen fuel cells and hydrogen gas storage, NFPA 30 will also address liquid fuels.
Can a First Element PEM Fuel Cell be used for off-grid applications?
Yes, our fuel cell can be used for off-grid applications; and they can be used in combination with a variety of equipment including solar, wind and batteries. When combined with a methanol reformer, waste-to-energy gas supply, ammonia cracker or hydrogen pipeline, it is possible to use our systems as the only source of power.
Will it be possible to use a First Element Energy fuel cell and reformer as a prime source of power?
Yes, our PEM fuel cell can be used as a prime source of power. Our liquid cooled fuel cells have an expected life that is longer than most of our competitors allowing it to be used in this type of application. However in most continuous duty applications it is often not practical to use standard compressed hydrogen gas cylinders as a fuel supply, tube skids or liquid hydrogen delivered on a commercial schedule will be more cost effective. In practice the most cost effective solution and best alternative to diesel generators is use of a methanol reformer or another fuel reformer for a liquid fuel refueling delivery cycle. There are some trial sites where hydrogen is generated onsite by renewable electricity or waste-to-energy systems.
The methanol reformer module is designed to help resolve this issue by using a fuel that is in liquid form and therefore much denser than compressed hydrogen gas, a liquid fuel allows for long periods of time before you must refuel the system. Liquid fuel distribution is already supported by an extensive worldwide infrastructure and is more economical and practical than compressed gas or cylinder delivery. The reduction in your operational fuel costs are significant in a baseload applications and offer a quick return on investment.
Can a First Element fuel cell be used in a mobile application?
The methanol reformer module is designed to help resolve this issue by using a fuel that is in liquid form and therefore much denser than compressed hydrogen gas, a liquid fuel allows for long periods of time before you must refuel the system. Liquid fuel distribution is an extensive worldwide and is more economical and practical than compressed gas or cylinder delivery. The reduction in your operational fuel costs are significant in a baseload applications and offer a quick return on investment.
Can a First Element fuel cell be used to power my home?
Although it is possible for a fuel cell to be used for residential purposes the difficultly of siting and installing a system in a residential setting often make it impractical. We currently do not offer units for retail, consumer use. Our systems are available to business, government, industrial and military users.