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Archive for 2011

With the holidays fast approaching, fuel cells are helping deck the halls and lighting Santa’s way.  For almost a decade, fuel cells have provided reliable, emission-free power to keep Christmas tree and other holiday lights all over the world shining bright, without the worry of tripping on the power cord.

75 kW fuel cell powering star on the 2011 Trafalgar Square tree

Back in 2002, one of IdaTech’s portable fuel cell systems was the world’s first to power the lights on a holiday tree at the California Environmental Protection Agency (Cal/EPA) Sacramento headquarters.  This early demonstration proved so successful that it has become a holiday tradition in California and around the world.

In 2005, the energy efficient LED tree lights for four Christmas trees at the Cal/EPA building were powered by a Freedom Power fuel cell system designed and manufactured by Altergy Systems.  In 2006, then California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger chose a 1-kW Altergy Systems’ hydrogen fuel cell to power the lights on the official state Christmas tree at the State Capitol building, the first official state Christmas tree in the U.S. powered by fuel cells.  This 55-foot tree had 6,500 lights.  Altergy provided a fuel cell for the 2007 and 2008 trees as well.  Air Products donated the hydrogen as a gift.

The Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square in London first used a fuel cell to power the lights in 2004, a project sponsored by the BOC Group plc, Johnson Matthey and Plug Power. Other partners in the project included the Greater London Authority, the London Hydrogen Partnership and siGEN.   The tree used a 5-kW Plug Power GenCore® 5T to keep it shining 24 hours a day.  It was such a success that the partners joined again in 2005.  In 2006, the fuel cell powered the crib lights at St Martin-in-the Fields church.

In 2007, the National Zoo in Washington, DC, used a Microcell 1-kW fuel cell system to help power the entry arch to its annual ZooLights holiday lighting display.

In 2008, the trend made its way to the Canary Islands, with a fuel cell lighting up a Christmas tree at the the Plaza de Santa Ana in the Capital, Las Palmas,  in Gran Canaria.

Plaza de Santa Ana tree lights powered by fuel cell

And this year, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Christmas tree is being powered by a Trulite Hydrocell 150 W fuel cell.  On the other side of the pond in Trafalgar Square, a 75 kW unit donated by UPS Systems is powering the star atop the tree.

DOE's tree powered by a Trulite 150 watt fuel cell

Fuel cells could power more than just the lights on the tree or other displays.  Other holiday-themed applications that could deliver an emissions-free “Silent Night” include powering:

  • Santa’s sleigh (both for propulsion and as an auxiliary power unit to power the electronic devices onboard (GPS, etc.)
  • Rudolph’s nose (or a long-lasting sleigh light to give Rudolph the night off!)
  • NORAD‘s Santa’s tracking devices
  • Blinking cell phone tower warning lights that keep Santa safe in the air
  • Elves’ power tools
  • Macy’s (or other department stores) animatronic window displays
  • Menorah lights
  • Spotlight on the crèche
  • Air pump blower fans for inflatable lawn decorations
  • Various gifts from electronics to talking dolls
  • Hot chocolate warmer
  • Leg lamp (fra-gil-e!)

If you can think of more, post in the comments below! Happy Holidays from Fuel Cells 2000!

Monday Night Football is always something special with “marquee matchups”, rivalries, must –win situations, and playing under the bright lights.  Well, that is what it is supposed to be anyways.  Just before game time last night in San Francisco, a transformer blew, cutting power to Candlestick Park.  As the stadium went dark and the texts from friends at the game started pouring in I couldn’t help but wish the 49ers had some sort of grid independent power source capable to keeping those bright lights on. No other utility customer lost power, and then oddly enough there was a second brief outage about an hour later.

We often talk about fuel cells as an excellent backup power, but mostly for critical or emergency power needs.  But with my jersey on, my Terrible Towel out, and snacks fresh out of the oven, last night’s game delay felt like an emergency to me.   So what if Candlestick Park had a fuel cell?  The lights would have stayed on, and fans at the stadium might have only wondered what that muffled pop in the distance was.  The inflatable helmet the 49ers run though to pump up the crowd would not have deflated into a sad pool of fabric on the ground.  The 32 television cameras filming the game would not have shut off and the game would have started on time.

A fuel cell system could provide reliable, clean energy to a stadium.  Fuel cells have flexible siting, they can be indoors, outdoors, or on roofs.  Fuel cells would help teams reduce their carbon footprints, a sad side-effect of professional sports that gets little attention.  Many teams are building new stadiums, including the San Francisco 49ers.  I hope these teams consider fuel cells as part of an overall clean energy solution at new stadiums.

The climate talks in Durban, South Africa, ended this week with some progress but even more questions about the future of a global effort to reduce the impacts of climate change.  The talks included the 17th Conference of the Parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the seventh Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol.  There was a lot on the line, as the first commitment period to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases under the Kyoto Protocol ends in 2012.

The end result of the talks were mixed.  The “Durbin Platform” will bring the U.S., China, India, and Brazil into the fold in a way that Kyoto did not, yet the targets won’t become effective until 2020.  Some critics say this is so far in the future that it will do nothing to curb short-term warming.  The Parties also agreed to a new Green Climate Fund that would provide up to $100 billion dollars to developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change; there was no agreement on how that money would be raised.  In the end, Canada pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol, saying the country could not agree to any new emission reduction commitments because the cost of meeting the first commitment period was already too high.  Instead, Canada is going to continue with its own reduction targets.

Developed nations and developing nations have been pitted against each other on binding targets since the Framework Convention was adopted.  Developed nations, lead most vocally by the U.S., believe that all countries must work together to solve this global problem.  Developing nations, lead vocally by China, want to be able to emit pollution as they grow their economy to the levels of the developed world; its not fair the developed world got to where they are now by polluting with impunity.  But this begs the question: “Is high carbon use the only road to development?”  Can there be another, more sustainable path that will grow economies without contributing to global, and local, air pollution?  Perhaps instead of focusing on the past to solve our problems, we should look to the future.  Fuel cells and other renewable technology are here today, and new development patterns should be built on their backs, rather than trying to recreate petroleum-dependent societies, which will only hold us back.

For two decades the lift truck industry has been working with fuel cell manufacturers to develop fuel cell-powered material handling vehicles.  After successful demonstration programs in the late 1990s, there are now over 3,000 fuel cell powered lift trucks deployed in North America, many at nationally recognized companies.  Fuel cell-powered lift trucks now comprise nearly two percent of annual sales of electric forklifts.

Lift truck manufacturers’ view of the state of fuel cell technology has changed as the two industries have worked closely together.  The Industrial Truck Association, a trade association that represents manufacturers of lift trucks and their suppliers, conducts an annual business trends survey.  From the survey it appears that the lift truck industry has improved its understanding of the basics of fuel cell technology, and how fuel cells can be used as a dynamic part of the lift truck industry.

Between 2004 and 2010 the survey has shown:

  • A growing sophistication in the understanding of fuel cell technology within the lift truck industry.
  • A growing confidence in the industry that fuel cell-powered forklifts will be commercially available in the short term, and that they will achieve a significant market share relatively quickly.
  • A belief that when fuel cell systems become commercially available, they will be price competitive with battery systems.
  • An understanding that price and hydrogen sourcing will be the largest hurdles.

Fuel cell-forklifts continue to win over new customers in grocery sector:

  • Kroger recently purchasing 161 systems, joining Whole Foods, Wegmans, WinCo Foods and Central Grocers.
  • Sysco has purchased nearly 500 additional fuel cell-powered forklifts for four warehouses in 2011 after a successful purchase of nearly 200 units in 2010.
  • Baldor Specialty Foods just announced the purchase of 50 methanol fuel cells for forklifts from Oorja Protonics.

Additionally, Proctor & Gamble announced this week they have purchased 200 fuel cells for forklifts from Plug Power for manufacturing facilities in California, Louisiana, and North Carolina

For comprehensive charts on fuel cell-powered material handling vehicles visit To keep tabs on the fuel cell industry, subscribe to our free monthly Fuel Cell Technology Update at

By Olan Dantes

Extending the travel range of an electric car, like the Chevrolet Volt, requires the use of gas-powered generators. But running an electric car on a generator makes it just like a normal one – less efficient and a fuel hog. That is without mentioning the added weight of a battery pack.

The answer to this problem could be what the researchers at the University of Maryland have developed. Their specialized fuel cell is the most efficient alternative yet to a gasoline generator. Similar to conventional fuel cells, it generates electricity through chemical reaction instead of burning fuel. This method can be twice as efficient as fuel combustion.

Their fuel cell is made from solid-oxide, an improved version of a solid ceramic electrolyte type cell. Solid-oxide fuel cells can run on a variety of readily available fuels like diesel and gasoline which is unlike the common hydrogen fuel cell. Although hydrogen fuel cells have been used for power generation on buildings, they are judged as impractical because of their size and their very high operating temperature which can reach up to 900⁰C.

The change in electrolyte material and the overall cell design allowed the researchers to create a much more compact fuel cell. Not just that, their fuel cell could also produce 10 times more power at a size similar to gasoline engines.

The researchers also managed to lower the operating temperature at a few hundred degrees. This improvement allows them to use materials that are at lower cost than those used in hydrogen fuel cells. Eric Wachsman, director of the University of Maryland Energy Research Center and research leader confirms the huge difference in cost. He says that his team has identified ways to further improve power output and reduce the temperature, using methods that are already showing a lot of promise. This could bring costs further down and can make its price as competitive as the price of gasoline engines. Wachsman adds that he is in the early stages of establishing a company for the commercialism of their fuel cell.

Wachsman’s fuel cells currently operate at a temperature of 650 degrees C but he hopes he and his team could bring it down to 350 degrees C making it usable for cars. Insulation of the fuel cell is possible because of its small size – a fuel cell stack to power a car would only be 10 centimeters high. The challenge is in dealing with high temperature since you will need expensive, heat-resistant materials within the device plus the fact that it takes time to heat up a fuel cell to operating temperatures. Wachsman and his team believe that if they manage to bring down the operating temperature, they can bring the cost further down by using less expensive materials and the time needed to start the cell will be reduced.

But even with these improvements, it is still impossible to turn on a fuel cell instantly. It would also be subject to wear and tear if it is subjected to constant switching for every short trip. The researchers counter this by providing a battery pack whose purpose is the same as combustion engines. With it, the fuel cell could run more steadily and the battery is at top condition if without any burst of acceleration.

The results achieved by the researchers were due to their efforts on modifying the solid electrolyte material at the core of a solid-oxide fuel cell. Fuel cells available on the market such as those made by Bloom Energy have thick electrolyte structures for better support. This thickness though limits power generation and so researchers have been finding other ways to support the cell besides the thick electrolyte. Wachsman and his team are the first to develop a multilayered electrolyte structure which is not only thinner but can also bring out more power even at lower temperatures.

The research conducted by the University of Maryland is actually a part of the continuous efforts of the U.S. Department of Energy to make practical solid-oxide fuel cells. The first fruits of that effort likely won’t be fuel cells in cars—so far, Wachsman has only made relatively small fuel cells, and significant engineering work remains to be done. The first applications of solid oxide fuels in vehicles may be on long-haul trucks with sleeper cabs.

Car equipment manufacturers like Delphi and Cummins are working on fuel cells that can power air conditioners, televisions and microwave ovens inside cabs which can cut fuel consumption by up to 85 percent as compared to resting the truck’s engine. Delphi’s system also follows a thin electrolyte design but operates at a higher temperature than Wachsman’s fuel cell. Delphi’s fuel cell could last a whole week running at low rates while maintaining the 85 percent reduction.

Join the element14 alternative energy community to find out more about fuel cells and other automotive engineering topics, innovations and technologies.

A free webinar: “Fuel Cells and Telecom – Reports from the Field” will be held Wednesday, December 7, from 12:00 – 1:15 EDT.    Speakers include both telecommunications and fuel cell companies.   Hundreds of fuel cells are already providing primary or backup power for telecom switch nodes, cell towers, and other electronic systems that benefit from power provided on-site. Companies such as AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, Motorola, MetroPCS and T-Mobile are deploying units all around the world.  Register for the webinar for a discussion on the technology, implementation, installations, and lessons learned from some of the country’s top telecom and fuel cell companies.

Speakers include James Kerr – Product Marketing Manager, IdaTech, Joe Blanchard – Chief Operating Officer, ReliOn, Inc. and Thomas Browning – Regional Director of Field Operations, MetroPCS.  The MetroPCS South Florida fuel cell project was (and may still be) the largest project of its type in history, involving 356 hydrogen fuel cell systems installed within South Florida.

On Thursday, December 8th, there is a Briefing on Stationary Fuel Cell Applications  from 10:30 AM – Noon in Rm. SVC 212-10 of the Capitol Visitors Center in Washington, DC.   There will be speakers from UTC Power, ClearEdge, Bloom, FuelCell Energy, as well as National Fuel Cell Research Center University of California, Irvine and FCHEA.

Toyota unveiled its latest fuel cell vehicle, the FCV-R Concept at the Tokyo Motor Show today.  This new mid-sized sedan is a far cry from the fuel cell-powered Highlander from years past.  The new concept has updated, “unique” design, which could be signaling an increased commitment by Toyota to commercialize these vehicles.  Slightly smaller than a Camry, the FCV-R Concept gets nearly 700km (430 miles) per tank.  Previously Toyota has announced sales of fuel cell vehicles by 2015, with continued improvements such as this latest concept, it looks like Toyota is on track to hit this target.                                                                      

An editorial in today’s Washington Post asks, what is the real scandal surrounding the Solyndra loan from the Department of Energy? Most news outlets are focusing on the politics of the deal, trying to score points with different constituencies. The Post editorial instead reflects on whether or not government programs such as the loan guarantee are even the right way to spur activity in alternative energy, or if such loans are even effective in the long run.

There are many good reasons for supporting alternative energy technologies ranging from addressing concerns about climate change, reducing dependence on foreign oil, increasing energy security, and keeping our country competitive and on the cutting edge of technology. Yet, as the Post editorial points out, “history is littered with failed government attempts to back the next big thing.”

The Post made a lot of excellent points as to why the DOE loan program is failing, and that the money could have instead been used to figure out “effective means of limiting carbon emissions or achieving energy security.” However, they give no hint as to what a better solution would be, or how governments should act to support the growth of alternative energy companies. If using taxpayer dollars to support domestic manufacturing companies is not the best way to spur the development of alternative energy technologies, as the editorial posits, then what is the best solution?

It is clear that pure market economics are not the answer, as energy is highly regulated, and incumbent technologies from oil, coal, and nuclear all enjoy government protection or subsidies in some form or another. How else can the government support alternative energy technologies? This is a question facing all sectors alternative energy, not just the fuel cell industry, but in these times of persistent economic uncertainty it’s one we need to address sooner rather than later. First and foremost, government policies need to be open to all technologies, and not support specific industries, in an attempt to pick a winner. Moving forward, we need a portfolio of options, rather than our current limited menu of finite and polluting fossil fuels. Choice is better than chains.

Current subsidies for fossil fuels should be rolled back. Subsidies should drive innovation, not maintain the status quo. Fossil fuel industries are robust, and no longer need government assistance to capture or keep their share of the market (which is considerable). However, alternative energy technologies may require this assistance to level the playing field to compete with entrenched technologies until they can become more mainstream.

So instead of asking “what the real scandal is?” surrounding the Solyndra affair, perhaps we should ask about what is holding back real, effective change in energy policy in the U.S.

Hurricane Irene blasted through the Northeast this past August, and despite her best efforts, could not stop fuel cells from providing clean, reliable power to business and telecom sites during the storm.  In late October, Winter Storm Alfred dealt a second blow, and although some are still without power in parts of the region, fuel cells again stepped up to ease the burden.  According to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the annual cost of power interruptions in the U.S. is estimated at $80 billion or more.

Telecommunications companies such as AT&T, MetroPCS, Motorola, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon are turning to fuel cells for backup power to cell tower sites and switching stations because they last longer than batteries, are extremely reliable, and can be sited in rugged terrain and extreme weather climates.  During these two major storms, thousands of cell sites were without power for extended periods.  Fuel cells were able to keep critical communications running.

  • Fuel cell manufacturer ReliOn reports that one customer in the affected area during Hurricane Irene had fifty-six cell towers with fuel cells installed for backup power. Forty-five of those sites experienced grid power outages in excess of six hours during the storm and the forty-five ReliOn fuel cell systems successfully provided power to the communications equipment for a cumulative outage time of 725 hours.  Average duration per site was 16 hours, with the maximum single outage duration being 50 hours. ReliOn also gives credit to its bulk hydrogen refueling provider, Air Products, for helping to keep these sites operational.  ReliOn fuel cells have also been crucial to provide cellular service for those without power from Winter Storm Alfred.
    • One of fuel cell manufacturer IdaTech’s customers located in a tropical resort community, reported that the fuel cell system automatically turned on, providing power to the telecom base station and continuous cell phone service for hours.

    Fuel cells installed at stores and retail sites can be grid connected or grid independent and can be configured to automatically switch on and provide power when the grid fails.

  • The Whole Foods in Glastonbury, Connecticut was able to keep the coolers running at its store during the power outage with its 200-kW UTC Power fuel cell, minimizing the costs of food spoilage.  This store was the first grocery store to install a fuel cell and Whole Foods now has four stores operating fuel cells around the country.
    • South Windsor High School in South Windsor, Connecticut, is a designated emergency shelter because of its 200-kW UTC Power fuel cell wired for grid independence.
    • In the wake of Winter Storm Alfred, Connecticut lawmakers are proposing, among other things, to increase the use of fuel cells in Connecticut to provide more electricity that is “off the grid.”

    Although not weather related, during a recent catastrophic power outage in Southern California, one of the only buildings in San Diego that retained power was the Albertsons grocery store, whose UTC Power fuel cell is capable of operating independent of the grid and kept the lights on and food fresh.  For everyone else, the blackout lasted for 12 hours.

    Fuel cells are enhancing reliability and increasing the efficiency of business operations.  These benefits and more are detailed in Fuel Cells 2000 recent report, The Business Case for Fuel Cells 2011:  Energizing America’s Top Companies.

    The House Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Caucus, along with the National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California, Irvine and the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association, hosted a briefing this afternoon on “Mobile Fuel Cell Applications: Status of Technology, Market Dynamics, and Hydrogen Infrastructure Needs.”  The panel of speakers addressed fuel cell technology for passenger vehicles and lift trucks, as well as the hydrogen fueling infrastructure.  The briefing was intended to reach House staffers, and the panelists did a good job of reiterating why government support in terms of policy and incentives is so important, especially as the technology is on the verge of commercialization.

    General Motors showed the vast improvements made in their fuel cell technology since the 1990s, and the success of their Project Driveway real-world demonstration.  Toyota reiterated their intention to commercialize by 2015.  However, both automakers made the point that the vehicles will be commercialized first in areas with a strong hydrogen infrastructure.  Plug Power spoke about their growing customer list, including many big name companies including Walmart and Coca-Cola.  And while Plug Power can meet a two year pay-back period, federal incentives on the cost of the fuel cell system, and fueling infrastructure will be critical to get them past the early adopter phase of sales.  Air Products stressed the importance of continued government support, stressing that fuel cell technology is here and now.  Not only is the fuel cell technology ready, the fueling infrastructure is ready to go, warehouse fueling stations can be installed for between $400,000 – $1.2 million, and vehicle stations for $1 million.  It was also stressed that fuel cell and hydrogen fueling technology was developed in the US, but without government support it could easily commercialized abroad. It would be a shame if we couldnt learn our lesson from battery, wind, and solar technologies, and squander our lead in the fuel cell industry.