Monday, February 20, 2012

Fuel Cell- a new concept in power generation

Power generation using fossil fuels is a well established technology dating back to 1839, when Michael Faraday invented the principle of Electro-magnetism. There was not much of a change in this technology all these years. But recently greenhouse emission and global warming has become an issue; and the world started looking for an alternative source of energy and method of power generation. However it is not an easy task to develop completely a different technology as well as a fuel in a short span of time, while an unabated man-made greenhouse gas emission continues. Scientists are now warning catastrophic consequences if the greenhouse gas emission is not curtailed with great urgency.Untill now the world was able to avert some of the potentially catastrophic events happening, like ozone layer depletion, pandemic bird flu etc.But global warming is a new thereat that demands an entirely a new solution and a swift action. But majority of countries in the world are not is a position to curtail greenhouse emission gas, simply because there is no alternative fuel known, except fossil fuels. Renewable energy is relatively a new concept. Though solar and wind energy sources were known long time back, they were not persuaded seriously because they could not compete with conventional fossil fuels. But the time has come for new emerging technologies that can not only compete with fossil fuels but also eliminate greenhouse emissions. The world has invested massively on fossil fuel infrastructures and still investing heavily on oil and gas explorations. Obviously there is no end in sight as far as fossil fuels are concerned and the world is carrying on business as usual. Meanwhile a new technology based on fuel cell is emerging as an alternative for power generation. Fuel cell is a known concept and it has been successfully deployed in ‘Apollo space programme in space shuttle. This old version of alkaline fuel cells was replaced with PEM (proton exchange membrane) fuel cell or (PEMF) Polymer electrode membrane fuel cell. This new version was used in Gemini’s space programme in sixties. Fuel cell is an electro chemical devise that uses Hydrogen gas as a fuel and it operates at ambient temperature. It is like a battery cell. The difference between fuel cell and batteries is the Fuel cell will keep generating power as long as fuel is supplied unlike a battery, where energy is stored in the form of chemical energy and converted into electrical energy when used by connecting through a conductor. Battery needs recharging but Fuel cell requires refueling. The fuel used in Fuel cell is invariably Hydrogen. Conventional power generation involves combustion of fossil fuel (heat energy) which drives a turbine (mechanical energy) to run an alternator to generate power (electrical energy).In fuel cell; Hydrogen gas reacts with oxygen from the atmosphere (electrochemically) to generate power. It produces water as by-product. The efficiency of Fuel cell is about 50-60% compared to 35-40% by steam or gas turbine. In regenerative fuel cell, water can be split into Hydrogen and oxygen using same proton exchange membrane elecrolyzer.The resulting Hydrogen can be used as a Fuel to the PEM Fuel cell to generate power, thus recovering water. It is a closed circuit system. There are no mechanical moving parts, no combustion, no smoke or no noise. It is a quiet and clean operation. It is a very promising technology that can revolutionize the way we produce fuel and generate power. The Hydrogen and fuel cell combination is used in cars. Honda FCX (fuel cell model) cars work on the same principle and they are already on roads! One problem with Hydrogen generation is it requires more power to split water, into Hydrogen and oxygen, than the power generated by resulting hydrogen, using Fuel cell. However, this technology will change the future of power generation by eliminating greenhouse emission completely. But how long it will take to become a commercial reality is something to be seen! If political leaders and Governments around the world recognize the potential of this technology and take bold decisions coupled with swift actions, probably our future generation can breathe a clean air.