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Fuelling development

WITH climate change and energy security top of mind, getting access to a clean and efficient energy supply is an attractive option. <b>By Charlotte Dudley</b>

Staff Reporter
Fuelling development

One of the much touted possibilities for future energy supply alternatives is hydrogen fuel cell technology; however, despite the popular buzz there are still many challenges that must be overcome if it is to ever be widely accepted by the mainstream.

Certain aspects of the technology are still very much in the embryonic stages (the US Department of Energy is busy leading its own hydrogen energy research project), but a commercially available fuel cells system has recently reached the Australian market.

Queensland mechanical engineering firm Leslie Consultants is distributing American manufactured Direct Fuel Cells, an emerging low-emission, high efficiency energy technology.

Hydrogen fuel cells work by harnessing the electrochemical energy of hydrogen to produce electricity, with heat and water the result. The hydrogen can be extracted from a variety of sources including natural gas, coal seam methane, anaerobic digester gas, ethanol and glycerol (a biodiesel by-product). A continued supply of fuel and air allows the fuel cell to produce electricity without combustion, or the pollutants associated with burning fuel.

Manufactured by Connecticut-based FuelCell Energy, the Direct Fuel Cells (DFC) source hydrogen from standard pipeline natural gas and produce hydrogen directly inside the fuel cell (hence direct), without the need for an external hydrogen-producing reformer.

Leslie said FuelCell Energy currently supplies around 50 systems ranging from wastewater treatment plants and hospitals to universities and an American coal mining operation. Leslie sustainable industries manager Adrian Horin told Australia’s Mining Monthly that while most of the current demand was coming from the US, the company would begin local manufacturing if Australian demand proved high enough.

The DFCs have a capacity range of 300 kilowatts to 2.4 megawatts and are around twice the size of an internal combustion set-up, according to Horin. Sizing is dependent on power capacity. For example, he said, the “most commonly provided” 1MW fuel cell occupied a space roughly the size of a tennis court. Imagine then, the 10MW system which FuelCell Energy has supplied as part of a local city power supply initiative.

Running at between 46% and 50% efficiency (or up to 66% if generated heat is harnessed), the DFC compares favourably with the 30% efficiency offered through internal combustion methods and, Leslie said, could prove a good choice for any operation that required reliable and ongoing power.

Horin said the fuel stack typically needed replacing every 18 months. He said that the system could be well suited to processing plant operations, particularly in coal mines, because not only was the energy requirement fairly stable, a coal mine already had a ready energy source, an essential requirement to run the system.

Because fuel cells are able to deliver electricity without the harmful emissions (that is, overlooking the initial hydrogen extraction process), the technology could potentially have positive applications in underground mines. However, feedback so far indicates that industry is taking a very cautious approach towards the technology with reaction very guarded on the potential of such an energy alternative.

A spokesman from the Australian Coal Association told AMM that while the organisation was committed to the research and development of clean coal technologies (some of which can produce hydrogen fuel as an output), the use of hydrogen in specific end use technologies such as fuel cells is not part of ACA’s current portfolio.

Scientific commentator Professor Julian Cribb is both cautious and positive. He said fuel cell technology was “where the world is heading” but said it was unlikely to be a standard energy supply for at least 20 to 30 years.

“As fuel cells are adopted they’ll be used in mining in both motive [moving] and static operations,” he forecast. Cribb stressed that issues such as safety, storage and efficiency needed to be addressed before the technology could reach its full potential.

At “about $3 million” to get up and running, cost is another major hurdle facing the technology, making the attitude of uncertainty all the more understandable.

Horin readily acknowledges the high capital outlay involved but remains optimistic about the future. He said costs were coming down by around 20% every year and that the DFC manufacturers had predicted that by 2010 fuel cell energy costs would drop from the current price of $175 per megawatt-hour, down to less than $100/MWh.

With improved energy efficiency will come long-term cost savings. Horin also added that with mounting pressure on corporations to reduce their environmental footprint, fuel cell technology represented an opportunity for mining companies to get a heads up on energy issues, achieve greater energy autonomy and boost their green credentials.

Horin said the best candidates for fuel cell technology would be operations that required a continuous and stable power demand cycle, as fuel cells did not cope well with highly changeable or discontinuous power demands.

Cost is not the only obstacle the technology faces. Contrary to all the hype about the environmental benefits of fuel cell technology, the fact remains that while the fuel cell power supply process is greenhouse gas emission-free, the hydrogen production process is only as clean as the energy sources used to produce it; and sourcing hydrogen from natural gas pipelines, coal seams or similar places produces harmful emissions.

In addition, hydrogen’s critics draw attention to its inherent storage problems and question its capacity to meet the kind of energy demand that industry requires. One of the technology’s harsher critics, outspoken US commentator Jim Kunstler, has labelled the hydrogen economy “pure fantasy”

For the fuel cell technology to ever achieve mainstream acceptance it will be an uphill journey, but as industry demand for a reliable, affordable and clean supply of energy grows (a fact further demonstrated by the nine-month waiting list DFC customers face), numerous developers and suppliers appear committed to the fuel cell cause.

Published in the March 2006 Australia’s Mining Monthly

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