European Fuel-Cell Technology Features Road Diesel

A Swedish-based research group advances traditional diesel as the main fuel supply for its fuel-cell technology.

Recent buzzwords for the energy industry in the U.S. include distributed (power) generation, micro grids and, of course, the smart grid. Europe has its “co-generation systems” and its feed-in-tariffs (FITs) for renewables. Since 2008, commercial adoption of renewable energy technologies has been growing  and legacy utilities are trying to integrate as many of these into the electrical grid.

Hydrogen fuel cell technology buzz “made an appearance” in the last decade but Gothenburg, Sweden-based PowerCell (www.powercell.se) is reintroducing this technology with a twist. This summer PowerCell  unveiled its new, fuel-cell system prototype called the PowerPac that uses ultra-low-sulfur diesel as its main source of fuel, instead of hydrogen or methanol.

PowerPac's fuel-cell prototype system converts diesel fuel (source) to electricity (fuel cell) with high efficiency, currently, the system reaches 20 to 25 percent efficiency―the objective is reach 30 to 35 percent efficiency.  The fuel-cell system's proprietary and patented technology produces 3kW of electrical energy that can power a medium-to-heavy-duty truck's air conditioning system or be a long-term backup of prime power for telecommunication-based stations. The company's current commercial products include the S1fuel cell that is powered with reformate gas―a blueprint for the PowerPac system.

The fuel-cell development originated inside the Volvo Group (www.volvogroup.com), but PowerCell became an independent, technology development company in 2009―largest fuel cell lab in northern Europe.

“Regarding the diesel system (PowerPac), we are still in development but we have two roads (strategies), says Andreas Bodén, dir. of engineering and business developer, PowerCell. One is a stationary diesel fuel-cell system and the other is for transportation (trucks). And if you look at the (stationary) picture, we think we can have ready it by 2015 and the transportation version in 2017.”

Bodén adds from a technical perspective, the diesel container's size ―supply fuel for the fuel cell―and where to locate it on the truck's frame is the biggest concern. PowerCell says it needs to shrink the system's size from 400 liters to 250 liters.

The company will target the North American market first for its transportation fuel-cell play, specifically,  sleeper cabs (or heavy-duty trucks). Bodén adds that this is the biggest market and Europe is second with its changing, commercial trucking practices―longer truck routes with the EU.  

The stationary business strategy aligns nicely with the telecommunications industry but “off-the-grid” applications are also being considered as military operations rely quite heavily on diesel generators―only two to seven percent efficiency from diesel generator (depending on motor) to electricity. Bodén says, “If you take the U.S. military, I believe they have around one million diesel generators and 100,000 (generators) are in 3 kW range. The military renews them every 10 years, so if we can get half of that group we would have 5,000 a year, that's huge (market) potential.” Bodén also points to local schools in emerging countries with “off-the-grid” growing pains and, even, India's small business reliance on diesel generators.

Once commercial in 2015, the PowerPac fuel cells will be manufactured in Sweden but facilities outside of Sweden will be examined as markets expand. 

RELATED FUEL CELL FACTS:
• Fuel cells perform direct catalytic conversion of chemical energy into electrical energy
• Efficient (30-60%) over a wide power range (10kW – 10MW)
• Pollution-free (water is the only by-product)
• Quiet (no moving parts)
• Low level of maintenance required
• Low heat output / low thermal signature

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