Jim asks: What is a fuel cell and what types of fuel cells are there? Are they cost effective for a home? Thank you for your help.
Hi Jim, thanks for your question. I see lots of questions about renewable energy these days. Not just because there are many significant financial incentives available through programs like the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) and other initiatives to promote the use of renewable energy.
DSIRE and Energy Efficiency Incentives
So to preface the answers to your questions, I’ll refer you to the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE) was founded in 1995 and is an ongoing project of the North Carolina Solar Center and the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC). It is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), primarily through the Office of Planning, Budget and Analysis (PBA). The site is administered by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), which is operated for DOE by the Alliance for Sustainable Energy, LLC.
It’s a great resource for someone in your position. At DSIRE, you can search for tax credits, rebates, grants, etc by state and it automatically separates out the residential programs from those dedicated to commercial buildings.
What is a Fuel Cell?
Now, to answer your first question, I’ll need to go into a little background. Fuel cells are essentially a device that generates electricity through an electrochemical reaction.
A common electrochemical reaction that everyone is familiar with is a standard battery. The battery contains a certain amount of chemicals that are mixed to create a reaction and when that chemical reaction has run its course the battery goes dead and cannot generate any more electricity. A fuel cell is different in that as long as you provide a constant supply of chemical, the electrical flow produced is continuous.
The ‘fuel’ is what dictates the type of cell, and there are many types: phosphoric acid, proton exchange membrane, molten carbonate, solid oxide, alkaline, direct methanol, regenerative, zinc air, protonic ceramic, and microbial. Phosphoric acid are by far the most popular and prevalent type and generate electricity at more than 40% efficiency. Industrial sized phosphoric acid cells also have an associated 85% cogeneration capability from their steam byproducts with the added advantage that they can use impure hydrogen for a fuel.
Fuel Cell for Homes
As far as fuel cells for the home, it looks like those are still a ways off until we see widespread implementation here in the US. Last year Japanese electronics company Matsushita was the first to put commercial home fuel cells on the market, but a slew of other companies are in tow. It looks like a minimum investment, counting government subsidies, would be about $10,000. You can read more about that project here.
And if you’re interested in reading more about fuel cells, a good site to check out is this one. Good luck with your project!