Fuel cell technology: a megatrend with a mini footprint
As the climate gives us increasing and alarming signals of change, individuals and industries are looking for ways to reduce their environmental footprint. But how do we balance our hunger for power with our fear for the future? With sustainability being a key element of the company’s strategy, Clariant actively supports an effective solution, the fuel cell: a device that creates electricity from fuel and oxygen, emitting only water and heat, thus making it a clean, green means of energy production.
A brief history of fuel cells
Invented in 1838 by Sir William Grove, the fuel cell has gone through numerous development cycles to become an important economical and ecological energy source. There are various types of fuel cell systems available today, used to produce energy at numerous commercial, industrial and residential facilities. Its applications range from large-scale use in utility power stations, transportation and production plants, to small systems such as portable computers.
How fuel cells work
A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that combines the chemical energy of hydrogen with oxygen from air to produce electrical energy. Since the main reactants in fuel cells are hydrogen and oxygen, they produce a completely harmless by-product: water. There are neither carbon dioxide emissions, nor other air pollutants that could be hazardous to the environment.
The hydrogen challenge
As oxygen is readily available from air, a fuel cell only needs to be supplied with high-purity hydrogen. The problem is how to get hydrogen to the fuel cell: the highly combustible gas is difficult to transport and store, requiring specialized and costly equipment.
Why we need catalysts
An easier way to source hydrogen is to produce it on-site from hydrocarbon fuels, like methane or methanol, which are readily available from the natural gas grid or the market, and can be stored with the same ease as regular liquid fuels. Converting these hydrocarbon fuels into high-purity hydrogen requires the use of catalysts in a four-step process: desulfurization, reforming, water-gas shift, and CO purification. As a leading global developer and producer of catalysts, Clariant offers high-performance HyProGen® catalysts for each stage of the process.
Using catalysts to produce high-purity hydrogen for a fuel cell
Fuel of advantages
Fuel cells emit none of the hazardous off-gases of traditional combustion engines, like nitrogen oxides or sulfur oxides. What’s more, fuel cells offer up to 90% greater efficiency with combined heat in obtaining energy from fuel, thus helping to reduce the consumption of natural resources. Even when operated using conventional fossil fuels, their superior efficiency helps reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by up to 50%. Better still, operation can be made entirely CO2-neutral by using biogas or green methanol.
Compared to a grid using natural gas, fuel cells greatly reduce carbon dioxide discharge, and completely avoid emissions of sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and smog-forming particles.
Fuel cells can convert a fuel’s chemical energy into electrical energy at up to 60% higher efficiencies than combustion engines.
Fuel cells can ensure secure, uninterruptible power on-site – even during grid outages and natural disasters.
The power goes on and on
Besides their outstanding sustainability and efficiency, fuel cells also offer secure, continuous power around the clock. That’s because they are neither influenced by environmental fluctuations, nor interrupted by power grid outages. Moreover, fuel cells are designed as modular systems, allowing flexible installation and easy expansion from kilowatts to megawatts. These factors have made fuel cells highly attractive for a diverse range of customers – from single households to company headquarters, mobile hospitals, retail properties, data centers, and more. The trend for this powerful energy alternative is sure to go on.
Fuel cell workflow: from producing high-purity hydrogen using Clariant catalysts to generating clean, green energy for customers
Who uses fuel cells
Clariant works closely with leading fuel cell producers to supply its high-performance catalysts in several hundred megawatt grids for some the most renowned corporations around the world.
- Company headquarters (Apple campus, Google, Morgan Stanley)
- Retail and manufacturing facilities (Ikea, Whole Foods, Home Depot)
- Energy and heat for buildings, houses, apartments (Sheraton)
- Industrial and utility plants
- Mobile hospitals (most recently in response to COVID-19 pandemic)
- Data centers (Amazon, Verizon, AT&T, FedEx, eBay)
- Households (Mainly Japan, also Taiwan and S. Korea)
- Naval applications (e.g. cruise ships)