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A Connecticut Fuel Cell In South Korea's Grid

Breakthrough contracts revive hydrogen hopes in electric power

2 min read

If you had asked a decade ago about fuel cells, you would have learned that two Connecticut companies dominated the U.S. market for small power plants, their only real application at that time. After a lot of ballyhoo in the meantime about putting fuel cells in cars and the ”hydrogen economy,” the same two Connecticut companies still reign in the fuel cell market today, selling essentially the same technology. Now one of them looks to be taking off, having received a big boost from some unlikely customers in Asia, beginning with a Japanese brewer. Fuel cells finally seem set to become a significant player in electric power.

FuelCell Energy (FCE), in Danbury, Conn., was founded in 1969 as Energy Research Corporation. It has focused single-mindedly on the molten carbonate cell, which operates at a relatively high temperature. Fuel cells cause hydrogen to react with oxygen, across an electrolyte and with the help of catalysts at the cathode and anode, to produce an electric current and water as a by-product. Generally, fuel cells run at temperatures that make it necessary for the catalytic elements in the electrodes to be made from expensive materials like platinum or palladium, and the catalysts tend to be sensitive to impurities like carbon monoxide. The Danbury cell, running at about 600 °C, consumes the carbon monoxide along with its hydrocarbon fuel. Its internal steam reforming system, which can take the hydrogen it needs from coal gas, natural gas, or waste processing and digester streams, distinguishes the FCE fuel cell from all the others.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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