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Fuel cells: An energy solution for the chemicals industry

1:25 PM MDT | October 26, 2012 | By IAN WILLIAMSON

The chemicals industry is being hit harder than most by the combination of rising energy prices, government-mandated carbon taxes, and emissions trading schemes. The industry faces a future in which it will have to make significant reductions in its carbon footprint and cut the amount of energy it draws from the national grid. Many in the sector will not have considered generating their own clean energy on-site, but for those producing hydrogen as a by-product, the fuel cell could provide a substantial proportion of their energy needs.

What is a fuel cell?

Most people are aware of fuel cells used in portable applications, like transport. However, there is also huge potential to use fuel cells as part of the distributed energy network where they will compete with both renewables and fossil fuels as a clean and efficient source of electrical power.

A fuel cell uses the chemical reaction between oxygen (from the air) and hydrogen (from a supply) to generate zero-emission electrical energy. The only other products are demineralized water and heat—both of which have commercial applications. Unlike conventional combustion-based electricity generation, fuel cells have no moving parts, meaning that the efficiency of producing energy is far higher (at up to 60%) than conventional methods of conversion such as steam boilers (at 20–25%) or gas turbines (at 40–45%).
Chlor-alkali: An abundance of waste hydrogen

The chlor-alkali process generates huge quantities of very pure hydrogen as a by-product of electrolysis and is also very energy intensive; electricity represents about 50% of the production cost. The amount of available waste hydrogen in the global chlor-alkali industry could support in excess of 3,000 megawatt of generating capacity, amounting to up to 17% of the industry’s energy needs.
There are further efficiency gains to be had by placing the fuel cells at the chlor-alkali facility itself, immediately converting the hydrogen into electricity for use on-site.  Some companies are already taking advantage of this potential market. My own company, AFC Energy, has installed a trial fuel-cell system at AkzoNobel’s chlor-alkali site in Bitterfeld, Germany. We use a low-cost alkaline fuel cell and expect to be able to produce electricity at an operational cost of £40 ($64)/megawatt hour (MWh) way before 2020. This compares favorably with coal-fired power stations coming onstream in 2017 that DECC predicts will produce electricity at an operating cost of £95/MWh, £69 of which will be carbon-related.
AFC Energy is one of a number of companies exploring how to apply fuel-cell technologies to the chlor-alkali industry. Late last year, Nedstack installed a proton exchange membrane fuel cell (PEMFC) at Solvay’s Antwerp chlor-alkali plant. A PEMFC uses platinum, making it more expensive than the AFC fuel cell, but its advocates would argue that its durability and flexibility allow it to overcome this cost disadvantage.

A political and economic incentive
There is more to fuel cells than just efficient, clean energy, as more and more governments around the world support them with financial incentives. The German government offers a feed-in tariff for fuel cells; its National Innovation Programme for Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology is making €700 million in funding available over the next 4 years. South Korea also provides a generous feed-in tariff for electricity generated from fuel cells and one of the country’s largest companies, Posco, has teamed up with US firm FuelCell Energy to build a fuel-cell production plant. The United States takes a different approach, offering federal investment tax credits worth $3,000 per kilowatt of capacity, while individual states offer further support.

An energy solution
With more governments realizing the potential of fuel cells, these kinds of schemes are likely to pop up around the world. In the United Kingdom, for example, the UK Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association is lobbying government for a fuel-cell incentive that matches those abroad and that would maintain the country’s leadership in fuel-cell technology.

With fuel-cell technology rapidly approaching commercialization, the chlor-alkali industry, with its source of waste hydrogen, is in a unique position to benefit. Fuel cells not only offer a clean, efficient energy source; they offer an opportunity to reduce the industry’s reliance on grid electricity and make it possible for it to benefit from state incentives for green energy, rather than just paying for them. 

Ian Williamson is Chief Executive at AFC Energy and President of European Hydrogen Association




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