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Tina Casey headshot

Solar-Powered Fuel Cells Put Low Cost Clean Energy within Reach

By Tina Casey

Bloom Energy has been steadily racking up corporate clients for its industrial sized, emission-free fuel cells, and now it looks like small businesses and home owners won't have long to wait for their own down-scaled version of the device. A Japanese company called FC-R&D is offering a home-sized hydrogen fuel cell called ZEEP24,  complete with a system that uses clean solar power to create its own hydrogen fuel on site. Aside from use by home owners and small businesses, the system could be useful in disaster relief, as an alternative to noisy, polluting diesel generators. Although ZEEP-like systems are not available in the U.S. yet, several are under development at research institutions, so it may not be long before any homeowner or small business owner could have one of their own, depending on the availability of funding.

Why a Fuel Cell?
Fuel cells create electricity through a chemical reaction, rather than burning oil, gas or other materials. Bloom's product is a unit about the size of a parking space, so it could be sited at practically any large building. The advantage for companies, aside from reducing greenhouse gasses, is to insulate their facilities from fuel price spikes, shortages and disruptions. The Department of Energy is also running a study of fuel cells for electric forklifts and other vehicles in warehouses, where minimizing emissions is essential. The findings could help in the development of low cost, high efficiency, emission free fuel cells for open road vehicles.

A Solar-Powered Fuel Cell for Homes
Conventional fuel cells use hydrogen as fuel, and one significant hurdle to a low-cost fuel cell is the relatively high cost of manufacturing hydrogen. Hydrogen manufacturing is also energy-intensive, which is another big minus. FC-R&D's elegant solution is a fuel cell system that includes a set of solar panels. The solar panels can provide electricity to power the house during the day, and they also provide energy for setting off a reaction in ordinary water that splits the molecules, separating out hydrogen gas. The hydrogen is compressed and stored in canisters for use in the fuel cell, which then provides energy to run the house at night. All together, the system is simply harvesting solar energy and storing it for later use, in the form of hydrogen. As an extra sustainability bonus, the system includes a water filtration element, enabling property owners to harvest their own rainwater for the operation.

Solar Powered Fuel Cells in the U.S.A.

Ironically, FC-R&D launched the ZEEP24 just a few hours before President Obama's address to Congress earlier this month, in which he called for more federal support for new research into cutting edge technology in the U.S., specifically to stay competitive with countries in Asia.  A ZEEP-like solar powered fuel cell is under development at Duke University, and earlier this year MIT solar researcher Daniel Nocera made waves with his concept for an "artificial leaf," a low cost solar device the size of a playing card, which could be set in a gallon jug of water to generate enough hydrogen for home-scaled fuel cells. Both are a long way off from commercial development. With some federal legislators using the Solyndra bankruptcy to question the use of federal funds to push clean energy projects forward, it seems that we will have to import our solar powered fuel cells for the foreseeable future.

Image credit: House by trint on flickr.com.

Twitter: @TinaMCasey

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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