Imagine having a safe, reliable and affordable backup generator the next time a big storm knocks your power out.
A University of Maryland researcher says he and his colleagues are close to making that dream a reality, with breakthrough fuel-cell technology that could put a dishwasher-sized, quiet power plant on the roof or in the basement of any business or home to keep the lights on, come what may.
"It's a complete system - natural gas in, energy out," says Erich Wachsman, director of UM's Energy Research Center. "This provides you complete microgrid capability. You could do it at a house, in an apartment building or at a strip mall."
Wachsman is science advisor and director of Redox Power Systems, a private entity he helped form that's working to commercialize fuel-cell advances he says he's perfected over 25 years of academic research. The company hopes to have a working prototype by next year, he said.
Fuel cells work a little like batteries, generating electricity chemically - though unlike batteries they require a constant stream of fuel and air. Besides being compact, they're far more efficient at generating electricity than internal combustion engines or gas turbines, making them candidates for running all kinds of vehicles and providing on-site power.
NASA was among the first to realize the potential of fuel cells, putting them in its space probes, satellites and manned missions. Now, much larger fuel-cell arrays are being produced in Delaware by Bloom Energy to generate electricity to the grid.
The federal government has pumped millions into developing hydrogen fuel cells to power cars and trucks. Poponents say fuel cells are the way to go to get 100 miles per gallon with a fraction of the emissions.
But Wachsman said the government's focus on hydrogen fuel cells is misguided, or at least premature, since that would require a complete overhaul of the nation's transportation fuel system to distribute and store the gas.
"There's a popular misconception that they have to run off hydrogen," Wachsman said. In fact, he said, they can run off a variety of fuels, including gasoline, natural gas and even biomass.
Promising as that sounds, they haven't exactly taken the world by storm yet. The solid oxide fuel cells Wachsman favors, for instance, need to operate at extremely high temperatures. But Wachsman said he's found a way to reduce the temperatures, making them more practical in a variety of settings. Redox, meanwhile, is working to bring down their cost, another hurdle.
The company calls its product PowerSERG2-80, which it dubs "The Cube." It's a waffle-block array of solid-oxide fuel cells capable of generating two to 80 kilowatts of power with natural gas, diesel or propane.
"Every business or home should be able to safely generate its own energy," Warren Citrin, Redox's CEO, said in a statement released by UM. "We currently rely upon a vulnerable electrical grid. The best way to decrease that vulnerability is through distributed energy, that is, by making your own energy on-site. We are building systems to do that, with an emphasis on efficiency and affordability. These should be common appliances."