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Fuel cell technology - the centerpiece of what's known as distributed generation - is hot these days. Manufacturers are rushing units to market that will allow individual homeowners or neighborhoods to generate their own electricity directly from natural gas or propane, in effect creating decentralized mini-grids.

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A Power Plant of Your Own

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Fuel cell technology - the centerpiece of what's known as distributed generation - is hot these days. Manufacturers are rushing units to market that will allow individual homeowners or neighborhoods to generate their own electricity directly from natural gas or propane, in effect creating decentralized mini-grids. Fuel cells were invented in the 1830s, but they didn't enter the public consciousness until the 1960s, when they were used to power spacecraft. (An explosion in a tank supplying oxygen to a fuel cell crippled Apollo 13 on its trip to the moon.)

In recent years, fuel cells have been the subject of intense research and development aimed at powering vehicles, homes, and even laptops and cell phones. Why the interest? Instead of burning fuel, fuel cells produce energy through a chemical reaction that links hydrogen from fuel to oxygen from air to produce heated water and electrical energy. There are several types of fuel cells, but among the most promising is the proton exchange membrane fuel cell, or PEM.

In a PEM fuel cell, natural gas or propane (sources of hydrogen) is fed under pressure into the unit, where a platinum-based catalyst on an anode converts it into electrons and positively charged hydrogen ions. The ions move through the proton exchange membrane - which blocks the electrons - and reach the cathode, where they combine with oxygen and electrons to form water. The electrons are conducted through the anode and produce a flow of current. A single fuel cell produces about 0.7 volts, meaning that many cells have to be combined in a fuel cell stack to produce usable voltages. Fuel cells have several benefits. They create little or no pollution. When fueled with hydrogen, they produce none, while natural gas and propane produce negligible amounts of nitrogen dioxide and carbon dioxide. They also operate at very high efficiency, since there are no mechanical components, and they operate quietly. There are drawbacks, too. They are expensive, at least for now. The technology is still considered relatively untested and they require regular maintenance.

Home fuel cells coming to the market are the size of furnaces and can produce 3 to 7 kW of electricity. Such units could become a practical reality within about two years, according to Dan Rastler, the area manager for distributed resources for EPRIsolutions, a subsidiary of the Electric Power Research Institute. EPRI and a Chicago area electricity cooperative will begin a pilot project later this year in which they will equip several homes with residential fuel cell systems to demonstrate their benefits. "We hope to work with as many of the leading fuel cell manufacturers as possible to showcase their units," Rastler said.

In fact, manufacturers are racing to enter the market. General Electric is developing a home fuel cell called HomeGen that it hopes to have on the market in the first quarter of 2002. According to distributors, a HomeGen unit capable of producing 7 kW of power will cost between $10,000 and $15,000, though the price is expected to decline to about $3,000 by 2006. HomeGen will also require major maintenance every three years at an estimated cost of $650, and its life expectancy is about 15 years. Another leading player is H Power Corp., which announced in May 2001 that it would soon begin shipping systems for sale in the fast-growing California market. Thomas Michael, an H Power vice president, said the company's units will generate 3 to 4.5 kW and will run on either propane or natural gas. H Power is building a manufacturing plant in North Carolina to assemble the units. Michael said no price has been released yet for its models, but he said the goal is to produce generators that will cost about $1,000 per kW. Other major industrial names are eyeing the market as well.

International Fuel Cells, a division of United Technologies Corp., has been producing fuel cells for the space program since 1966 and units for commercial use since 1991. IFC is collaborating with three other major corporations - Carrier, also a United Technologies division, Toshiba and Buderus Heiztechnik, a European heating products manufacturer - to develop a 5 kW PEM fuel cell suitable for homes. The first units will be available commercially in 2003. Denise Kalule, the manager of market development for IFC, said the early market for the fuel cell units will likely consist of early adopters - those consumers who are willing to pay a higher price for novel technology. That market, she said, will include people looking for assured power and those already living off the power grid who are seeking a convenient way to provide backup power for solar and wind systems. What's the potential for residential fuel cells? It's hard to say, since there are many obstacles to their widespread use and much development work remains to be done. Still, it seems as if the smart money is betting that they'll succeed.

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