energy transition

Fuel cells: meeting energy challenges?

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The company is putting pressure on the energy suppliers! In addition to a growing and increasingly connected population and manufacturers demanding a seamless network, suppliers are facing an environmental challenge pushed by governments since COP21. How to produce constant energy for all, without interruption and without greenhouse gas emissions? Among alternative energies, the fuel cell is emerging as a real phenomenon. To find out more, we met with Rami Reshef, a fuel cell expert who, after years of research, launched GenCell (1)power solutions based on this clean energy. He explains how the fuel cell can revolutionize our 4.0 world.
 
Rami Reshef
 
Ahydrogen fuel cell technology seems to be a hot topic at the moment, especially in the automotive market. How do you feel about it?
 
It is true that the automotive industry sees enormous potential in fuel cells. There is no doubt that this stems from growing consumer concerns about the environmental impact of exhaust emissions.
Transport accounts for 12 % of carbon dioxide emissions in Europe and more than 20 % in the United States. As a result, governments aspire to reduce these figures by putting pressure on manufacturers to invest in alternative technologies to fossil fuels. The hydrogen fuel cell system has become a means to achieve this goal.
The automotive industry has certainly brought fuel cells back to the forefront again, which is fine, but this is not a new technology.
Fuel cells have been used in other markets with great success for many years. For example, NASA was one of the first to use alkaline fuel cells in its Apollo program in the 1960s. It used them to provide much-needed lighting and heating, as well as electricity to power other on-board equipment on each space shuttle. It chose this technology because it needed extreme reliability - the batteries were simply too heavy and also did not offer the long life needed.
This proven space technology improved and validated the quality and durability of fuel cells that would later be used in many other commercial applications.
 
If this is not a new technology, what has prevented the wider adoption of fuel cells in other markets?
 
In the early days of fuel cell development, the promise of this technology was enormous and a multitude of companies were won over by its many advantages. However, when scientists tried to commercialize it, problems of modularity and manufacturability arose.
The early adopters did not receive the promised benefits, which tarnished the reputation of fuel cells as a viable alternative energy source. But, as with most new technologies, fuel cells have since been redesigned, refined and the initial problems have been solved - allowing them to compete with more conventional technologies such as diesel generators.
Fuel cell manufacturers like us are now enjoying great success with this technology in a number of markets. But from a reputational perspective, we are all working hard to restore market confidence in this technology, relying on strong evidence and customer testimonials to prove its success.
 
So what barriers have fuel cell manufacturers had to overcome to make the technology commercially available and saleable?
 
Over the years, many companies have invested a great deal of time and money in trying to break down the two main barriers to fuel cell use - capital and operating costs.
I cannot speak for the others, but in our case we have worked hard for six years to meet this challenge. We have been successful in developing a number of patented solutions that have enabled us to reduce our capital and operating costs, including the use of a platinum-free catalyst, as well as mechanisms to use ambient air as an oxidant and lower-cost industrial-grade hydrogen as a fuel.
One of the key factors in fuel cell operating costs relates to the cost of hydrogen. While the cost of producing hydrogen has historically been lower than gasoline or methane, the current cost of distribution makes it more expensive than gasoline or methane for commercial use. Fortunately, with the scale of sustainable energy and the growing demand for hydrogen, new hydrogen distribution systems have been deployed in regions such as Japan, California and other U.S. states, which should eventually help solve this problem.
"GenCell 5Kw fuel cell stack model
 

In addition, there are also new methods of hydrogen production that use wind, solar, geothermal and hydroelectric power to break down water. The potential of the newest and most environmentally friendly methods, combined with new distribution channels, will help make hydrogen increasingly economical as new economies of scale are achieved.
 
So which markets and applications are most impacted by fuel cell technology?
 
The possibilities for fuel cell applications are virtually limitless - just about every area of energy use - but there are already a few key markets where the adoption and maturity of this technology is progressing very rapidly. These include the transportation and automotive sectors, industrial power generation and backup power for critical utility systems, telecommunications and many other areas.
Indeed, the challenges presented by the ageing of our power grids in many parts of our highly connected world make a continuous supply of electricity imperative. For many industries, the cost of a business interruption outweighs the cost of a business continuity solution. This is particularly true for telecom operators, where the business model is pay-per-use (communication). For them, a network outage results in a complete stoppage of cash flow and is extremely expensive. For electricity providers and other utilities, a power grid outage is also extremely expensive - and not only for utilities. In 2015, it is estimated that power grid outages cost the U.S. economy $110 billion.
 
So are all fuel cell technologies applicable to these markets, or are there specialized applications for each?
 
A wide range of fuel cells is available on the market and they are adapted to specific applications.
Each fuel cell offers its own advantages. For example, the most widely used technology in the automotive and transportation industry is the PEM (Polymer Electrolytic Membrane) - a low-temperature fuel cell operating between 80 and 100 degrees Celsius. Due to their small size and light weight, PEM fuel cells are currently the preferred power source for a range of material handling and rental applications, such as forklifts, portable lighting systems, and more.
Others, such as molten carbonate and solid oxide fuel cells, operate at 650 and 1000 degrees respectively and are used primarily for constant power in large-scale utility applications.
GenCell uses alkaline fuel cell (AFC) technology, another type of low-temperature fuel cell. These cells are extremely reliable and highly efficient, in fact offering the best energy efficiency of all fuel cell technologies. In addition, they are highly resistant to extreme temperatures, humidity and air salinity.
These advantages make it an ideal fuel cell technology for providing non-polluting backup power in the event of a power outage. However, in the future, this technology will offer even greater potential for additional uses beyond backup applications.
 
In what way? In what scenario could fuel cells be used outside a backup application?
 
In two words, for a continuous power supply. When the power grid is unavailable, the options for providing continuous power are currently limited to diesel generators and batteries. In the past, fuel cells were mainly used for backup applications, as there was no solution that could match the reliability and cost of using these alternative power sources. But fuel cell technology is catching up.
And if it were possible to provide this in the future, there is a lot of interest in using fuel cell technology for continuous power. Why is there interest? Because it will provide the same benefits as standby applications: fuel cells emit no greenhouse gases, require minimal maintenance and do not require regular recharging, are virtually silent, vibration-free and odourless, can operate in extreme temperatures, and their only by-products are water and heat.
Not only does this technology offer the opportunity to massively reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, but it could also be used to make a significant contribution to the well-being of society.
 
How could fuel cells for continuous power provide benefits to society?
 
Imagine, for example, a situation where fuel cells are sent with first aid teams during natural disasters such as earthquakes or tsunamis. They could instantly provide life-saving power for emergency services, critical power for local medical facilities or field hospitals, schools, or even a lighting and heating system for refugee camps.
In addition, this same highly reliable and low-maintenance fuel cell technology could be installed at any remote off-grid site around the world. For some, it would provide life-changing electricity to communities for the first time, or, for others, it would simply make continuous power more reliable, more accessible and easier to maintain. 
It is also capable of increasing communications in these regions tenfold. In isolated places with extreme weather conditions, such as Brazil with its high humidity or Canada with its extreme cold, telecommunications operators often find it difficult to provide communities with a reliable and continuous telecommunications network. In the future, fuel cells could overcome this problem and revolutionize the reliability of telecommunications towers.
In summary, we believe that alkaline fuel cells will become an "everyday" fuel cell technology.
 
So, when will "everyday" fuel cell technology be available?
 
It's hard to say, but I think we should see this type of technology enter the market over the next 12 to 24 months - first by offering all the benefits of fuel cells, and then by generating economies of scale that will give it a cost argument for replacing diesel generators as a mainstream energy source.
However, we must not let these prospects undermine what we have today, as the mature fuel cell markets offer considerable opportunities.
 
At this point, what are the barriers to successful fuel cell adoption in the near term?
 
In our opinion, a simple education. There's a lot of misinformation circulating around modern fuel cell technology, and when talking to potential customers, our first job is often to correct what they think they know.
To do so, we explain what we and others have done to push the technological limits we knew before to make modern fuel cells one of the cleanest, most reliable, most robust, and most efficient energy sources on the market.
We then show them how this technology is being adopted by many of the world's leading international companies, all of which perform their own comprehensive due diligence processes to approve the use of fuel cells in their businesses.
Our second mission is to talk to them about hydrogen in general, as many companies are not familiar with the subject. We explain that it is the lightest and most abundant element in the universe, is considered the most environmentally friendly fuel, and is as safe or safer than gasoline or natural gas (methane). We also educate them about the supply of hydrogen and compare its costs with those of other energy alternatives such as solar, wind, batteries and diesel.
There is no doubt that this is a common feature of all low-temperature fuel cell manufacturers in the market. The good news is that the case for fuel cells is so compelling that, if one takes the time to understand it, particularly among leading companies where the costs of downtime are in the millions, the cost of a fuel cell to minimize its impact becomes a very obvious and sensible argument.
 
Interview with Rami Reshef, CEO of GenCell
 
(1) About GenCell
GenCell manufactures and supplies complete fuel cell-based power solutions that provide a reliable and scalable 5 kW power source. Powered by hydrogen, the clean energy of the future, the GenCell G5 long-life uninterruptible power supply (UPS) provides backup power for the telecommunications, homeland security, healthcare and niche industrial markets. The GenCell G5rx utility backup power solution acts as a direct source of backup power or complements backup battery systems that provide as little as 6-8 hours of power, and includes a protective housing that is resistant to electromagnetic pulses and high voltages. Headquartered in Israel, GenCell has a regional presence with a distribution and support network in North America, Latin America and Europe.
 

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