Fuel Cells in the Real World Part 2: Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel Cells

The image of a fuel cell vehicle driving on streets producing only water vapour as waste epitomises the public perception fuel cells. At the heart of these vehicles is Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel Cell (PEMFC) technology, which continues to dominate the fuel cell market in terms of numbers of shipments sold. PEMFCs operate at lower temperatures (70-120°C) relative to other types of fuel cells and have an electrolyte made of a solid polymer (such as Nafion) which conducts protons. Due to these characteristics and the sensitivity of the platinum electrodes to fuel impurities, PEMFCs generally require very pure hydrogen as a fuel source. However, the relatively low operating temperature, exceptional power density and scalability (Watt-sized to MW sized systems) makes PEMFC technology extremely versatile, which is why it is so popular and dominant within the fuel cell industry. Like Part 1 which looked at Solid Oxide Fuel Cell systems, the following gives a very brief overview of emerging PEMFC industrial developments and highlights the sheer diversity of PEMFC applications. More information can be accessed by clicking the relevant picture.

Hyundi FCEV                   Toyota FCEVForklift FCEV                          moped FCEV truck FCEV                  horizon FChymera FC                     hymera2 FCballard FC                                cekatec FC

The most familiar use of PEMFC technology the general public (and all fuel cells) is in fuel cell vehicles (FCEV). Hyundai (1) are leading the commercialisation of automotive PEMFC systems with the ix35 series production already underway. Toyota also plans to begin series production of an FCEV for market launch in 2015. Series production of the FCV-R concept (2) unveiled at the 2011 Tokyo Motor Show is expected to begin soon.

Other vehicles employing PEMFC technology include fuel cell forklifts. The GenDriveTM PEMFC developed by Plug Power is used to power forklifts and numerous other materials handling vehicles (3). These are used at BMW Manufacturing’s 4.0 million square feet South Carolina plant, which is home to North America’s largest fuel cell forklift fleet. Lightweight PEMFC vehicles in development include the scooter series by APFCT (4), who are seeking partnerships with motorcycle manufacturers globally to take part in a prospective 3,000-strong fuel cell scooter demonstration in order to help the technology reach mass production. From light to heavy-duty, PEMFC technology is also at the heart of the Tyrano Class 8 heavy-duty truck developed by Vision Industries (5). Total Transportation Services signed for the purchase of 100 of these vehicles last year.

Away from transport, Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies have developed a range of portable PEMFC systems ranging from the Mini Pak hand held USB fuel cell charger (6) to the 200W Hymera portable power system (7). Their range of products also extends to stationary systems, which include the ECOBOX-MR, a range of 1-10kW PEMFC systems available for remote area or back-up power applications (8). A much larger stationary PEMFC system has been developed by Ballard. The 1 MW ClearGenTM system (9) continues to sell a small number of units per year and Ballard commissioned a 1 MW system at the headquarters of Toyota USA at the end of 2012.

Finally, the CEKAtec PEMFC powered drinks trolley (10) is an example of a PEMFC application that does not instantly come to mind. Conventional battery-powered trolleys did not have the energy density to last for the long distance train journey services provided by Swiss Federal Railways. Therefore, a PEMFC unit was designed to provide power to the drinks trolley and is currently being trialled on the Zurich–Berne route. The new PEMFC powered trolley can provide enough power for around 120 espressos, has twice the runtime of the conventional system, and is smaller and half the weight.

Fuel cell principles and technology are taught through lecturing and practical sessions as part of the new BSc Sustainable Energy Science degree at the University of South Wales.

CLaycock Christian Laycock

Research Fellow and Lecturer in Materials Chemistry
Sustainable Environment Research Centre
University of South Wales

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