National Research Council scientist David Ghosh on the potential and problems of hydrogen fuel cells
Last Updated May 1, 2007
The quest to find alternative sources of energy has been gaining ground over the years as consumers start to question the sustainability, economics and even the politics of using fossil fuels.
That need to meet the ever-growing demand for power has given rise to generating options that range from hydroelectric to nuclear to wind turbines and even alternative fuels like biodiesel for use in cars.
But few possibilities have been able to capture the imaginations of scientists and the public alike in the way that the prospect of hydrogen power has. It's plentiful — found in water as well as fossil fuels — and it's clean, producing water as a byproduct of generating energy.
The quest to push hydrogen technology forward and commercialize it is the impetus for an international conference and trade show being held in Vancouver April 29 through May 2. The conference is held once every three years.
CBC News Online spoke with David Ghosh, the director of science and technology at the National Research Council's Institute for Fuel Cell Innovation in Vancouver about the potential, hurdles and hopes for hydrogen power.
Where does Canada rank in hydrogen technology?
Canada, we are seen as being a leader and recognized worldwide as being a leader in fuel cells and hydrogen. Vancouver … is the world's largest fuel cell cluster — we have over 2,000 people working in fuel cell research, which is the largest concentration in the world.
When will hydrogen power be commonplace?
It depends on the application. This [technology] is not as commercial as you imagine. A lot of research is going on … but you don't get breakthroughs every year.
In terms of visibility, automotive [uses] capture people's imagination and visibility. It's a huge market but the cost has to be very low, the reliability has to be high and the durability has to be high.
The automotive application is probably going to be the last one to be commercialized.
Then what will be the first uses of hydrogen power in a commercial setting?
I think places where you have more of a niche, like backup power. So, you would see it used in things like cellphone towers and data centres. We're trying to commercialize our technology.
We've been hearing about hydrogen power since at least the 1970s, during the oil crisis. Why is it taking so long to arrive?
We're in the demonstration stage. The issue has been the cost. [Hydrogen power] costs two to five times higher than today's [energy] costs from power generation with coal or natural gas power plants.
Conventional energy costs around $600 to $800 per kilowatt. [Energy from a hydrogen] fuel cell costs about $2,000 per kilowatt.
So we need to get the cost down by about two to four times.
The NRC is working on a hydrogen fuel cell. How big is it and what can it be used for?
The size will depend on the use. It is scalable depending on the application. Our lab unit holds about two to three litres of water inside. We're dealing with an Asian cellphone manufacturer and they're interested in shrinking it down.
It would be like a disposable lighter — you click it in [a cellphone] and as soon as you click it in, it will start generating hydrogen. You would be able to extend the life of the cellphone [use] about 10-20 hours.
How does it work?
Hydrogen gas reacts with a catalyst and an electron slips out — that's the electricity.
Ours is a Proton Exchange Membrane or PEM fuel cell — that's the kind used by companies like Ballard and Hydrogenics. For automotive [use], PEM is good because it's light, compact. The downside is it needs hydrogen [only] as a fuel, which isn't readily available.
There's also a solid oxide fuel cell, which will work on gasoline to generate hydrogen, but it needs a high temperature. They are good for residential applications. Because they are high temperature, you can use the heat they generate to heat up your water, so you can get hot water and electricity. Solid oxide fuel cells work at about 700 C — PEM is around 80 C.
Both are fuel cells, so they convert fuel into electricity directly.
Which is better?
The advantage of the [PEM fuel cell] technology we've come up with is that it needs no [external source of] hydrogen. You turn it on and the hydrogen is generated. This is an electrochemical reaction — these electrodes react with water and get consumed in the process.
So, our fuel cell uses two separate devices: one to generate hydrogen and the fuel cell uses the hydrogen to generate electricity.
What do you hope will result from this conference?
From our point of view, it will be a meeting of all sorts of people who will exchange their experience both in commercial and scientific research and using hydrogen in trains, cars, building power, cellphones and so on.
On the science side, there are a lot of scientists coming in and exchanging ideas on reducing costs, improvement of reliability, improvement of lifetime [for fuel cells].
And at the NRC, we will showcase all Canadian technology. We have a lot of Canadian technology set up in the building as a discovery centre that has things like [a hydrogen] filling station, backup power units and so on.
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