Recently, I heard a comment on TV that the coming of a new energy source in fuel cells will drive a third industrial revolution in the 21st century, as the first and second industrial revolutions were driven by steam/coal power, and combustion engine/petroleum power, respectively. You may wonder if there is any credibility to this prediction, or is it just a dream?
According to the DOE for one, fuel cells are more reality than a dream. Fuel cells began supplying electric power for spacecraft in the 1960s. Today, they are being used to provide on-site power for buildings, and in the near future, they could be used in residential, transportation (for example, major automotive manufacturers have a fuel cell vehicle either in development or in testing right now, and speculate that a fuel cell vehicle could be commercialized by 2004), portable power and landfill/wastewater treatment applications.
DOE's Office of Fossil Energy is partnering with several fuel-cell developers to develop the technology for the stationary power-generation sector. Industry participation is extensive, with more than 40% of the program funded by the private sector. As phosphoric-acid fuel-cell technology matured in the 1990s, DOE's fuel-cell research emphasis shifted to higher efficiency systems, including molten-carbonate and solid-oxide fuel cells and fuel cell-microturbine hybrids. The goal is to have these technologies ready for initial commercial entry by this year.
The primary reason fuel cells aren't being installed everywhere there is a need for more power is cost. Today, the most widely marketed fuel cells cost about $4,500/kW compared with $800-1,500/kW for a diesel generator and even less for a natural-gas turbine. However, recent technological advances have significantly improved the economic outlook for fuel cells. For example, the development of improved, less expensive conducting materials allow the newest fuel cells to work at higher temperatures and generate higher power density, both of which lower costs.
Costs, however, are still not competitive with more conventional power sources. State-of-the-art fuel cells now being tested are likely to cost around $1,200/kW, comparable to a large-scale coal-fired power plant, but still too expensive for most on-site ("distributed") power uses.
DOE has launched a major initiative to achieve dramatic reductions in fuel-cell costs. The goal is to cut costs to as low as $400/kW by the end of this decade, which would make fuel cells competitive for virtually every type of power application.
The initiative is called the "Solid State Energy Conversion Alliance." The name signifies the Department's objective of developing a modular, all-solid-state fuel cell, which could be mass-produced for different uses similar to the way electronic components are manufactured and sold today.
But activities in fuel-cell technology are much more widespread than the DOE initiative. For example, a fuel cell directory published by the Fuel Cells 2000 (www.fuelcells.org) lists nearly 1,000 developers, suppliers and other organizations involved in the fuel cell industry. Nearly every state has some type of activity in fuel cell research, not to forget the significant activities outside the U.S.
It looks like fuel cell commercialization will be a dream come true.