Q&A: A Conversation with Fuel Cell Collaborative Leaders

The Fuel Cell Collaborative is a consortium of organizations, including the University of South Carolina, the Savannah River National Lab, the City of Columbia, EngenuitySC, SCRA, and Midlands Technical College, focused on positioning Columbia, S.C. as a leader in hydrogen fuel cell innovation and technology. Its mission is to attract private sector partners, top fuel cell scientists, entrepreneurs, and innovators to the Columbia region to help grow the innovation pipeline from discovery to development to deployment of fuel cell technology. 

Q: What is a fuel cell?

Fuel cells work like batteries, but they do not run down or need recharging. They produce electricity and heat as long as the hydrogen fuel is supplied. A fuel cell consists of two electrodes—a negative electrode (or anode) and a positive electrode (or cathode)—sandwiched around an electrolyte. A fuel, such as hydrogen, is fed to the anode, and air is fed to the cathode. Activated by a catalyst, hydrogen atoms separate into protons and electrons, which take different paths to the cathode. The electrons go through an external circuit, creating a flow of electricity. The protons migrate through the electrolyte to the cathode, where they reunite with oxygen and the electrons to produce water and heat.--Source U.S. Department of Energy.

Q: Where is hydrogen extracted from that is used in fuel cells?

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, but there are very few naturally occurring sources of molecular hydrogen on the earth. Hydrogen can be extracted from a variety of sources including through the electrolysis of water and from reforming methane (natural gas). Electrolysis of water can be done using energy from most clean energy sources or from most conventional electrical power sources. Reforming methane can be accomplished on natural gas, digester gas, landfill gas, or other waste gas streams having a high methane content.

Q: What are some applications of hydrogen and fuel cell innovations to economic sectors of society?

Hydrogen and fuel cells are already making an impact in markets such as material handling, back-up power generation, portable power, and vehicles. Major auto manufacturers such as Toyota, Honda, Kia, GM, and others have all constructed fuel cell vehicles and are moving forward with making these commercially available between 2015 and 2020 in many markets. The U.S. Department of Transportation has been funding demonstrations of fuel cell transit buses for nearly a decade, including one such project that involved a hybrid battery-fuel cell propulsion system in which the bus operated in the Columbia region in 2008-2009.

Q: Are fuel cells being used to power our community? How?

Fuel cells are being used in a variety of applications in the Midlands. A fuel cell was recently installed at Midlands Technical College to back up critical telecommunications equipment. Other demonstrations include a project with Jadoo Power to integrate fuel cell portable power systems into two mobile cameras operated by SCETV to test durability and usability, as well as backup power for cell phone sites for the City of Columbia. BMW in Greer, S.C. converted their entire lift-truck fleet (more than 300 fork lifts and material “tugger” units) to operate on hydrogen due to increase operator efficiency and cost savings compared to batteries.

Q: Can I purchase a fuel cell in Richland and Lexington counties? Is it available to businesses and commercial markets?

Fuel cell products are available from multiple vendors on-line for both consumer and commercial use, but not many stores currently stock fuel cell products. However, this is likely to change in coming years, and cell phone battery charging or other mobile power applications will become more available commercially.

Q: What is the impact of the Collaborative in Richland County?

The Collaborative has engaged the Midlands area population in growing a hydrogen economy and Fuel Cells 2000 has named South Carolina as a Top Five Fuel Cell State for five years now, citing S.C. as a leader for innovation in and support for fuel cell research and development. The USC-Columbia Fuel Cell Collaborative was awarded the Excellence in Tech-based Economic Development Award for 2011 by the International Economic Developers Council (IEDC) and received national recognition in 2009, as the recipient of the Southern Growth Policies Board Innovator Award. Additionally in 2009, the National Hydrogen Association held their annual conference in Columbia, due to the high level of local activity, and at the time it was one of the largest events that had been hosted at the Columbia Convention Center.  Hydrogen and fuel cell research has brought numerous talented researchers to the Midlands and has attracted companies such as Trulite to locate in the area. The attractiveness of the business climate in South Carolina for hydrogen and fuel cell-related companies is very strong and there is a continual interest from companies in potentially locating operations here. 

Q: How does the Fuel Cell Collaborative stimulate innovation locally? Nationally? 

The Fuel Cell Collaborative has funded a variety of Fuel Cell Challenge projects that push for wider adoption of fuel cell applications and deployment, as well as cutting edge research. As part of Fuel Cell Challenge V, the Fuel Cell Collaborative funded student teams at USC to research industry problems that were submitted nationally and globally. In addition, a student team was funded to develop a fuel cell business around an innovative concept. The team that was chosen developed a prototype fuel reformer that had interest from multiple companies for licensing the technology. That team also won several awards for entrepreneurial startups and is still operational. 

Q: What sort of solutions is the Collaborative looking for to help environmental sectors?

The Fuel Cell Collaborative participated in a U.S. Department of Energy funded project at BMW, led by SCRA, to generate hydrogen from landfill gas. That project successfully demonstrated that a landfill gas source for producing hydrogen on-site is technically feasible and commercially competitive as a possible replacement for commercial hydrogen deliveries. Savannah River National Lab, a Fuel Cell Collaborative member, created and demonstrated operation of a “regenerative fuel cell system” that consumes hydrogen to produce electrical power then regenerates hydrogen for future use by using solar power to split water into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen molecules. USC incorporated a fuel cell back-up power system in their residential Green Dorm when it was built, and has a variety of research projects investigating the integration of renewable energy sources with fuel cells.

Q: What do you think the chances are of getting the cost of hydrogen production and distribution down to an affordable level?

The economics of hydrogen production are largely dictated by volume and market factors.  It is projected that as hydrogen is in greater demand, the cost of hydrogen will decrease. The key is finding economically viable niche markets for hydrogen and encouraging adoption of hydrogen where it has advantages over existing technologies. As mentioned above, the project at BMW in Greer transformed landfill gas into hydrogen. Having successfully converted over 300 forklifts to hydrogen fuel cells from battery power, BMW has experienced increased productivity along with time, energy and space savings for the materials handling equipment in this facility. Successful applications of this technology in projects like this and other markets will help drive down the cost of hydrogen.

Q: What sort of research is coming down the line?

There is a lot of research going on in the hydrogen fuel cell space to create new electrocatalysts that are low cost and have a long lifetime. There is a lot of innovation outside the fuel cell stack in what is known as the balance of plant to make other fuel cell components cheaper and more reliable. Research is also occurring in how to scale-up manufacturing for critical fuel cell components. Developing novel hydrogen-storage materials is an active research topic as well. USC in Columbia is researching high temperature solid oxide fuel cells and polybenzimidazole, or PBI, fuel cell systems that can help solve many of the issues encountered by proton exchange membranes, or PEM, fuel cells.

Q: Why do we need a hydrogen economy?

We can all probably agree that reducing greenhouse gas emissions and shifting to renewable sources of energy before depleting non-renewable sources would be a good thing for the environment and world population. In addition, reducing this country’s dependence on foreign oil resources, along with lowering electrical demand for residential and commercial customers, due to increased efficiencies of alternative energy conversion technologies, would also be considered a step in the right direction. A hydrogen economy is one way to get there.

Hydrogen has many advantages over other energy carriers in that it can be used highly efficiently in fuel cell systems and can be generated from many sources. Fuel cells have many competitive advantages when compared to batteries and generators.  These advantages will likely translate into economic savings in many cases and for many applications.  As this happens, it will help consumers to save money and drive additional price decreases and adoption of fuel cells. We believe the hydrogen economy will ultimately benefit consumers and their demand for cost savings.

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