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Nov 03, 2000

Hydrogen and fuel-cells – the latest

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By Karel Smrcka Motor vehicles running on hydrogen, fuel-cells supplying electric power for mobile telephones and laptops, and fuel-cells developed for National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) space shuttles: these are just some of the exhibits that could be seen at the joint display stands devoted to hydrogen and fuel-cells at Hanover Fair 2000 in Germany earlier this year. Continuing technical advances and the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions are the driving force behind the worldwide development of new commercial applications for hydrogen and fuel- cells. Scientists believe that hydrogen has a key role to play as a future source of clean renewable energy for the planet. Fuel-cells are used to convert hydrogen efficiently into electric power and heat – and the process is entirely pollution-free. A group of 20 firms and scientific institutions presented displays of their work at the ‘innovations, market research and technology’ part of the exhibition.

Necar DaimlerChrysler’s fuel-cell project group presented the fuel-cell concept study, Necar (new electric car). The vehicle’s fuel tank is filled with methanol, with an on-board reformer that converts methanol to hydrogen. The chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen in the fuel-cell produces electrical energy to power the vehicle’s electric motor. Fuel-cell cars should be on sale by 2004. The joint display stand featured a full-size cutaway model of the Necar, based on a Mercedes-Benz A-class model. Zcellsis, a new company based in Kirchheim/Teck-Nabern, was jointly set up in 1997 by DaimlerChrysler; Ford Motor Company, in the US; and Ballard Power Systems, in Canada; to develop and manufacture a new type of power-plant to replace the internal combustion engines in cars. Production and marketing are scheduled to begin in 2004. The new propulsion system relies on a polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel-cell, which produces electricity from hydrogen to drive the car’s electric motor. The fuel-cell system s can be powered by either methanol or hydrogen.

Mini fuel-cell The Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems, in Freiburg, was displaying a mini fuel-cell for portable electronic equipment operating in the low-power range, with a high power-to-weight ratio of between 1 W and 50 W. This device allows laptops and camcorders to be operated without batteries. The institute for solar energy systems has been exhibiting regularly at the joint display stand, since it was first introduced in 1995. The Baden-Wuerttemberg Centre for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research presented its own range of portable fuel-cells, which are designed for substantial power outputs in everyday use. These fuel-cells use hydrogen supplied from a hybrid accumulator, which is mixed with oxygen from the air. At the Gerhard Mercator University, in Duisburg, the department of mechanical engineering has also been working on the development of low-cost portable fuel-cells, aimed at a mass market. Typical applications include the supply of power for electronic devices, such as compact-disc players, laptops and other computers and portable electronic power tools, as well as helping to supply the general electricity need for consumers.

Fuel-cells and fuel-cell stacks Proton Motor Fuel-Cell, from Starnberg, develops and manufactures fuel-cells and fuel-stacks, together with elements and systems components. The company is currently working on systems with a power output of up to 60 kW, and has already produced a 30 kW fuel-cell unit for use in cars, and a larger 60 kW system for buses on local public transport routes.

Another organisation, Research Centre Juelich, presented examples of its work, such as combined energy supply-and-storage systems, and a high-pressure electrolyser for direct energy supply, based on solid-oxide fuel-cells.

New-millennium fuel Hydrogen as the new-millennium fuel was the boast of the German Hydrogen Association, in Berlin, which represents a number of leading German companies, but which also has a substantial private membership. This institution is working to promote hydrogen as a clean and sustainable medium for the storage of primary energy, and to secure its early adoption by the energy industry as part of a new environment-friendly energy strategy.

The European Fuel-Cell Group, from the Netherlands, is supporting the introduction of fuel-cells as a highly-efficient and clean technology for producing heat and energy within Europe.

The Netherlands Energy Research Foundation (ECN) is the largest independent organisation engaged in energy research in the Netherlands. Its research effort is mainly concentrated in the area of renewable energy sources (solar, wind and biomass), under the motto ‘Working for the world’s future’. The ECN’s subsidiary, InDEC Pilot Production, contributed to the joint display as a manufacturer of electroceramic components, typically used in fuel-cells, electrocatalytic reactors and in the form of ceramic membranes for the separation of gases.

The French Atomic Energy Commission, in Grenoble, promotes work with hydrogen and fuel-cells, develops polymer electrolyte membranes, fuel-cell components and carries out research into hydrogen accumulator capacities.

Belgium was represented by Hydrogen Systems, the market leader in its field, and presented an innovative concept for hydrogen production. The devices manufactured by the company are designed for an output of between 3 Nm3 and 120 Nm3 an hour, and large numbers are already in service around the world. The company has also produced Europe’s first hydrogen-powered city bus, which was unveiled to the visiting international public at the Hanover fair.

British company ZeTek Power is involved in the development of hydrogen-powered taxis, and the first commercial sales of this vehicle were confirmed in December 1999, when an order was placed by the City of Westminster (London). In the meantime, ZeTek has also developed a second-generation fuel-cell that no longer has to be hand-built in the laboratory, but is specially designed for automated production methods.

Edited by: System Author

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