Fuel cells, which can convert chemical energy directly into electricity, have been proposed as a replacement for other methods of generating power from fossil fuels for 100 years. Till recently there have been numerous difficulties in commercializing them however. Will these problems be overcome in the new century? If the problems can be overcome, fuel cells will likely be the favored technology of the future for all CHP as well as large centralized powerplants. Not only do fuel cells produce reasonable efficiencies at the smaller sizes, they will likely be able to run quietly, need infrequent maintenance and emit little pollution.
A fuel cell works similar to a battery. In a battery, electricity is generated as a result of a fixed amount of substance undergoing a chemical change inside the cell. In a fuel cell, a continuous flow of chemical substance flows through the cell and is made into electricity. While a battery has a limited amount of electricity it can produce per cycle, a fuel cell can produce electricity as long as more fuel is pumped through it.
Solid oxide fuel cells will likely be the favored fuel cell for CHP [2]. Small solid oxide fuel cells will be about 50% fuel to electricity efficient, medium powerplants 60% efficient, and large one's up to 70% efficient. Their efficiency is good from about 15%-100% power. Most solid oxide fuel cells utilize both hydrogen and carbon monoxide fuel inside the cell. This means that they can readily operate on hydrocarbon fuels such as coal gas, gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel, alcohol, and natural gas. The efficiency of the solid oxide fuel cell used in CHP applications will be higher than the polymer electrolyte fuel cells for two major reasons. The first reason is that the hydrocarbon fuel is reformed into hydrogen and carbon monoxide fuel largely inside the solid oxide fuel cell. This results in some of the high temperature waste thermal energy being recycled back into the fuel. The second reason is that air compression is not required. Especially on smaller systems, this results in a higher amount of net electricity being produced and quieter operation.
Most polymer electrolyte fuel cells that are being developed for automobiles and CHP use hydrogen gas as a fuel. It is not likely that we will have hydrogen pipelines supplying homes and businesses in the near future. This means that hydrogen will often be extracted from hydrocarbon fuels in CHP systems. Because the polymer electrolyte fuel cell operates at a low temperature, there is no waste thermal energy recycling in the reformer. Air compression to about 3 atmospheres or higher must be used to have a reasonable power density [3]. On small systems this results in a substantial loss of efficiency. Small polymer electrolyte fuel cells will be about 35% fuel to electricity efficient, medium powerplants 40% efficient, and large one's up to 45% efficient.
Because of the high temperatures that the solid oxide fuel cell must run , they may not be practical for sizes much below 1,000 watts or when portable applications are involved. Several companies in the world are presently working on direct alcohol fuel cells. In this type of fuel cell, the alcohol is not reformed but used directly in a very simple type of fuel cell. This fuel cell is ideal for portable equipment such as power tools, laptop computers, portable phones, and emergency generators. For more information on fuel cells read the web-booklet "The Future of Fuel Cells"