GE to Muscle into Fuel Cells with Hybrid System

GE Research looks to capitalize on shift to natural gas with a combination fuel cell and engine for distributed power

2 min read
GE to Muscle into Fuel Cells with Hybrid System

General Electric is working on an efficient distributed power system that combines proprietary fuel cell technology with its existing gas engines [like the one in the photo].

The company's research organization is developing a novel fuel cell that operates on natural gas, according to Mark Little, the director of GE Global Research and chief technology officer. When combined with an engine generator, the system can convert 70 percent of the fuel to electricity, which is more efficient than the combined cycle natural gas power plants powering the grid.

The fuel cell will generate electricity from reformed natural gas, or gas that's treated with steam and heat to make hydrogen and oxygen, he says. Residual gases from the fuel cell process—a "synthesis gas" that contains carbon monoxide and hydrogen—would then be burned in a piston engine to generate more electricity. The waste gas that comes from the fuel cell needs to be specially treated but “we know we can burn these things. They’re well within the fuel specs of our current engine,” Little says.

This distributed power system could provide electricity to a small industrial site or a data center, for example. It would replace diesel generators that are often used to power remote locations or bring electricity to places without a central grid. 

GE sells engines from two companies it acquired, Austria-based Jenbacher and Wisconsin-based Waukesha. It has done its own research on solid oxide fuel cells, and in 2011, it invested in Plug Power, which makes fuel cells for homes and small businesses. But Little indicated that this distributed power system will use new fuel cell technology invented by GE and configured to work in tandem with GE's engines. “We have a real breakthrough in fuel cell technology that we think can enable the system to be distributed and yet work at a very high efficiency level,” he says.

Commercial customers are showing more interest in stationary fuel cells and natural gas generators because they can provide back-up power and potentially lower energy costs. GE's system, which is still a few years a way from commercial availability, will be aimed at customers outside of the United States, Little says. Because the United States has relatively cheap natural gas, the combined power generation unit is unlikely to be cost competitive with grid power there. However, the price for natural gas in many other countries is more than double that in the United States and the hybrid power generation unit will “compete beautifully,” Little says.

GE's hybrid fuel system is just one of many research efforts the conglomerate has underway to take advantage of unconventional oil and natural gas drilling. Among the projects now being considered at a planned research center in Oklahoma is a way to use liquid carbon dioxide as the fluid to fracture, or frack, wells, rather than a mixture of water and chemicals. The company is developing a hybrid locomotive engine that can run on both diesel and natural gas. And it is working on small-scale liquid natural gas fueling stations that could be placed along railroad lines.

In another effort, GE is developing sensors and software to make oil and gas wells smarter. Researchers are working on different types of photonic sensors that are able to withstand very high heat and pressure. These  would be better  than electronic sensors for gathering flow and fluid composition data within wells, according to GE researchers.

Image credit: GE

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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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