I received an email asking if I know anything about using a hydrogen fuel cell to generate electricity for your home. Specifically, the person was curious about a new generator called a BlueGen developed in Autralia.
I should state upfront that I know little about fuel cell technology beyond what I have read in science fiction (of which I have read a lot!), and what I have followed in the daily news. According to science fiction fuel cell technology will be the power source of the future … by easily converting abundantly available water to hydrogen and oxygen the hero of the book always seems to have unlimited, clean power to accomplish his goals. According to what I have followed in the daily news fuel cell technology is a very promising method of power generation … if we can work the bugs out of it (and they have been saying this for a long time now).
According to the link above about the BlueGen line of generators, companies may actually be making some progress in making a viable product. The catch is that these units are not turning water into hydrogen, at least not directly and not cleanly. The generator uses another fuel (like propane or natural gas) and via the process of fossil fuel reforming generates hydrogen and waste products of heat and carbon dioxide. In other words, my picture of one of these generators is a lot like the gas powered generator you might use to keep your fridge and freezer running if the electrical grid fails for a period of time. The hydrogen fuel cell can be viewed as the alternator of the generator, and in this case the alternator is spun via fossil fuel reforming.
The difference is that apparently a hydrogen fuel cell generator is much more efficient than an equivalent gas generator … maybe as much as two times more efficient from what I have read. This is good … you could get the same power production, generate less green house gas and use less fossil fuel … definitely a step in the right direction! I gather that is the intended use in Australia; with one of these systems running on your property and grid-tied to the electrical network you will be able to produce power more cheaply than the utility can provide it and sell the excess back to the utility. I have mixed feelings about grid tied systems despite intending to implement one myself. We are still relying on a centralized grid for power production with all of its inherent issues; reliability, line losses during distribution, cost and dependence on a remote system.
What is more interesting to me is the ability to use different sources to provide the fuel for the fuel reformation process; a biogas digester for example, or my personal favorite wood gas from a wood gasifier! In other words, from my reading anyway, the fuel for this generator does not have to be a fossil fuel. It sounds like a wood gasifier hooked up to a hydrogen fuel cell would be more efficient than using it to power a gas engine to generate electricity. I am now excited!
Having said all this … I will not be rushing out to get my hands on one of these generators until I see and read about some actual installations!