Sandia LabNews

DOE joins state of Alaska in promoting fuel cell energy for remote arctic villages

Sandia has assembled what may be the country’s largest collection of hydrogen-powered proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells from different companies.

The fuel cells and associated hardware from three vendors are destined for the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, where they will be tested and hardened for arctic climates for eventual deployment in remote villages. Fuel cells produce electricity and heat by combining hydrogen and oxygen to create water.

Sandia manages hydrogen utilization technical research for DOE’s national hydrogen program, which helps remove technical barriers to use of hydrogen energy. The Alaska Division of Energy will provide assistance with project logistics, site selection, and installation. This collaboration represents UAF’s first project for its new energy center and is intended to accelerate PEM fuel cell technologies toward commercialization in both Alaskan environments and the lower 48 states and Hawaii.

Alternative to diesel generators This research and deployment program is exploring an alternative to the most common remote arctic village electrical supply, diesel generators. The researchers envision that utility companies might place fuel cells in homes and operate them in a decentralized fashion. A small network of fuel cells in a village of several dozen or more homes might more flexibly meet demands for heating and lighting.

Diesel generators have set "a fairly high standard for reliability," says Dennis Witmer, a visiting assistant professor in mechanical engineering at UAF and a researcher in the study. He lived in a rural village half a decade. However, he believes a distributed "micro-grid" of fuel cells could efficiently avoid life-threatening risks of losing a central generator during extreme cold spells, as happens occasionally.

"This may be the first application of distributed small fuel cells for electrical power production," adds Jay Keller (8362), who is the technical program manager and who coordinates Sandia’s part of the project at Sandia’s Combustion Research Facility.

Remote arctic villages usually have heating oil tanks at each home that could hold diesel fuel to create hydrogen through a reforming process. Waste heat created by this system could be recovered for space heating (which represents about 60 percent of the total household energy demand). However, these technologies must be engineered for frigid arctic conditions, Witmer points out, just as automobiles equipped with special heaters must be plugged into electrical outlets to keep engine oil warm and fluid so cars are not damaged upon starting.

On Sept. 30, Sandia accepted three proton-exchange membrane fuel cells that will be initially tested at Sandia and are destined for systems testing at UAF. The first phase of this program is to develop a fuel cell that will produce 3 to 5 kW, sufficient average electrical power for a single house, in a laboratory using electrolytic or bottled hydrogen.

By the end of this year, vendors are due to develop and deliver reformers to convert diesel or kerosene into hydrogen for use in the fuel cell. In the second phase of the program, in 1999, reformers will be integrated with the fuel cells. The integrated systems will then be tested as stand-alone laboratory units. In the year 2000, pre-prototype systems are due for field deployment at a remote arctic site.

In addition to helping integrate the reformer technology, Sandia will deliver a novel hydride bed, which can be used to store hydrogen in a nonflammable fashion.

Industrial partners include: Northwest Power Systems (NWP), LLC of Bend, Ore.; Energy Partners of West Palm Beach, Fla.; Plug Power of Latham, N.Y.; Teledyne Brown Engineering – Energy Systems (TBE) of Hunt Valley, Md.; Schatz Energy Research Center of Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif.; and Hydrogen Burner Technology of Long Beach, Calif.