Fuel cells could break into mainstream use very soon, and that means big cuts in energy consumption. The US navy is reportedly ready to deploy generators powered by fuel cells. Meanwhile, a startup in Maryland claims it can offer a cheaper, longer lasting fuel cell than any on the market by next year.
There are several kinds of fuel cells, which work a lot like batteries (watch an explanation here). Some have been used experimentally in passenger buses in London, Beijing and other cities since 2006, and certain types of fuel cells are already sold as generators. But it's solid-oxide fuel cells, like the US military is now using, that have the most potential for energy efficiency. Until recently, their greatest strength--the high temperatures they operate at, which allow them to produce more energy than other fuel cells--had also made them expensive to produce. The materials needed to withstand over 1200 degrees Fahrenheit and proved costly and unreliable; most models couldn't last long enough to return their initial investment in energy cost savings.
But the short-term benefits of using less fuel (reducing the number of convoys needed to carry fuel around the battlefield reduces the number of vulnerable soldiers in the field) motivated the US Department of Defense Energy and Power Community of Interest, a collaboration between branches of the US military, to improve fuel cell technology for battlefield use. In its press release, the US military said it may use the technology to power naval war ships soon, too.
The resulting solid-oxide fuel cell is the first to take high-sulfur fuel like jet fuel, instead of low-emission options like hydrogen, while remaining less pollutive and more efficient than a combustion engine. In tests, the US navy's power unit decreased fuel consumption by 44% compared to similar-sized combustion generators currently in use. Powered by jet fuel, the fuel cell generator runs nearly silently; instead of the roar of a diesel engine, all you hear is the fuel cell's cooling fan, which hums like a refrigerator.
You're probably not looking for a military-grade, jet-fuel packing generator, but the civilian options are getting better, too: MIT Technology Review reports that Redox, a Maryland startup, is using new materials in its fuel cells that cut production costs by almost 90%, as well as increasing power output at lower temperatures, which means they'll be more efficient than options on the market now--and hopefully take longer to wear out. By 2014, the company hopes to have a 25-kilowatt generator, which could produce enough electricity for a grocery store. Later, Redox will move on to models for residential use. If the company delivers and moves off grid--in other words, providing power in regions that lack reliable power infrastructure--solid-oxide fuel cells will get cheaper, and using fossil fuel could get a lot less terrible for the planet.