College Planning & Management

MAY 2013

College Planning & Management is the information resource for professionals serving the college and university market. Covering facilities, security, technology and business.

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Facilities MANAGING A SSE TS Fuel Cells 2013 Looking to the future of fuel cell technology. BY PIETER VAN DER HAV E M OST PEOPLE DON'T KNOW squat about fuel cells. This is remarkable, since the principle of the technology has been around for almost 200 years. One hundred years ago experts were suggesting that, eventually, most cars would be fueled by this amazing technology. In 2000, engineers and scientists were again promising that by 2008 many cars on America's roads would rely on hydrogen-powered fuel cells. Clearly that has not happened. Is fuel cell technology and research running out of gas? There is some evidence to suggest that such might be the case. At the very least, one might argue that it is changing priorities. One of the first columns I penned for College Planning & Management, years ago, was about the bright future of fuel cell technology. Having just attended a conference in Austin, TX, I was all hyped up about the probability that fuel cells would change our lives. Clean fuel such as hydrogen is the input, while clean water or steam and electricity are the output. Virtually zero impact on the environment would be the fringe benefit. Compressed natural gas (CNG) can also be a fuel source, although less desirable. Fuel cells — such as polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM, sometimes called PEFC) — would be the propulsion force for automobiles, eliminating the use of carbon-based fuels. This type of fuel cells uses hydrogen to produce electricity. Since each produces only a fraction over one volt of electricity, a number of cells are needed in order to propel a vehicle. A federal website,, offers this basic explanation of how a PEM cell works (direct quote): 1. Hydrogen fuel is channeled through field flow plates to the anode on one side of the fuel cell, while oxygen from the air is channeled to the cathode on the other side of the cell. 2. At the anode, a platinum catalyst causes the hydrogen to split into positive hydrogen ions (protons) and negatively charged electrons. 3. The PEM allows only the positively charged ions to pass through it to the cathode. The electrons must travel along an external circuit to the cathode, creating an electrical current. 4. At the cathode, the electrons and positively charged ions combine with oxygen to form water, which flows out of the cell. The electricity generated by the fuel cell is of the DC type. If the load being served requires AC electricity, the electrons must pass through an inverter. 10 COLLEGE PLANNING & MANAGEMENT / MAY 2013 Sounds simple enough, so why has the technology not had the amount of success with automobiles, as predicted? Some of the possible causes for this lack of interest are quite obvious: • Fuel cells produce low-voltage electricity. This electricity must be converted to mechanical power to push a vehicle. Batteries may be required as a backup source should the cells fail. Why introduce a fuel cell when we already have effective battery-powered cars? • The automotive fuel cell, as generally visualized today, relies on hydrogen fuel. For this to be effective, the vehicle must be equipped with a hydrogen storage tank — a risky proposition. Additionally, the driver must have access to a hydrogen distribution infrastructure — which doesn't exist yet and would be expensive to develop. CNG is also a potential fuel option, but today one doesn't need a fuel cell. There are many CNG vehicles on the road already. • In the early 2000s, the environmental movement gathered a great deal of momentum, putting significant pressure on the automotive industry to change their way of thinking. Although American companies dragged their feet until legislation provided mandates, numerous foreign companies jumped on the opportunity. As a result, traditional gasoline-powered vehicles (based on the 1864 Otto-Langen internal combustion engine) as well as diesel-fueled vehicles are now extremely efficient in their use of traditional carbon-based fuels while also complying with increasingly stringent pollution requirements. • Battery technology has improved in recent years, and continues to improve. Electric cars and hybrids have thus become a much better investment option for the average consumer. • Alternate fuels are more readily available than ever. They are relatively inexpensive, competing nicely in most cases with oilbased fuels. Although the cost of crude oil and pump prices seem high, the effective total cost of ownership is still more attractive than would be the cost of a fuel cell propelled vehicle. Until traditional fuel prices skyrocket, it is likely that we will only see fuel cells in experimental vehicles. It is more likely that other types of fuel cells, such as the solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC), will be used in applications such as emergency backup for critical facilities and data centers. That's what the future holds for facility managers. CPM Pete van der Have is a retired facilities management professional and is currently teaching university-level FM classes as well as doing independent consulting. He can be reached at WWW.PLANNING 4EDUCATION.COM

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