Toyota fuel cells

Fuel cells gain some traction

Last week, Southern California Gas reported that it invested $1 million into an Oregon fuel cell manufacturer.

The development is one of a couple recent high profile announcements putting the spotlight on a technology that has the potential to add another potent clean energy dynamic to the diversification of the world's energy sources. The industry is expected to expand tenfold in the next decade.

Hal Snyder, a SoCalGas vice president, said fuel cells, which produce power with a third less carbon than conventional means, provide customers with an offgrid energy option. And these units use natural gas. "SoCalGas is a leader in the push for new innovative green technologies," he said in a statement.

Toyota also said it was on track to market hydrogen-powered fuel cell automobiles by 2015 in California, Japan and Germany, according to Alan Ohnsman in a story on last week. Takeshi Uchiyamada, Toyota’s executive vice president for research and product development, told Ohnsman at the Detroit Auto Show that Toyota aims to cut the cost of producing hydrogen cars to about half the $100,000 now required.

“I have high expectations for fuel-cell vehicles,” Uchiyamada is quoted as saying. “Over the past several years, we’ve seen many of the outstanding technical issues solved.”

Certainly, the business is expected to grow. Surrey, United Kingdom-based IntertechPira said in its report, "The Future of Clean Technologies," this summer that "the fuel cell and distributed hydrogen market are anticipated to grow from an estimated $2 billion industry in 2009 (primarily for research contracts and demonstration and test units) to more than $20 billion by 2019."

The technology developed for cars requires straight hydrogen. SoCalGas is going with a fuel cell that can tie right into existing gas lines that supply businesses and homes. Hillsboro, Ore.-based ClearEdge Power says its ClearEdge5 units are smaller than a refrigerator and can provide electricity to an entire house and heat for a pool.

So far, cost has been a major factor keeping hydrogen out of the consumer market. While, the concept is not altogether complex, the execution, at a reasonable cost, is.

Here's an edited version of how the Smithsonian Institution explains it: Hydrogen atoms enter a fuel cell where a chemical reaction strips them of their electrons. The ionized hydrogen atoms carry a positive electrical charge while negatively charged electrons provide the current through wires to do work. Oxygen entering the fuel cell combines with electrons returning from the electrical circuit and creates water.

ClearEdge Power uses what it calls a "fuel reformer" on the front end of its fuel cell to extract hydrogen from natural gas.

Other projects also are moving forward. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. projected it would complete installation of two 1.4 megawatt fuel cell power plants on the campuses of California State University East Bay – Hayward Hills and San Francisco State University. The universities are expected to incorporate fuel cell technology into their respective curriculum, according to a statement by the Danbury, Conn.-based manufacturer Fuel Cell Energy.

Graphic: Smithsonian Institution