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Basically, a fuel cell is a small electrochemical power plant that produces power from the input of air and gas such as hydrogen, reformed natural gas or other sources of energy. They produce significant quantities of power relative to the amount of gas used to ‘feed’ them. And they are efficient in all sizes of plants – big and small.
"Fuel cells can be used in countless applications, from lawnmowers to cars and even in buildings, where they can supply both power and heating – in a highly decentralised energy system," explains COWI project manager Jens Dall Bentzen. In addition to the many opportunities afforded by fuel cells in terms of power output, there are also important environmental advantages. The cells are noiseless, emit no sulphur dioxide (SO2) and only very little nitrogen oxide (NOX). The only waste product is water.
However, we are still at a very early stage of development. Jens Dall Bentzen explains: "Fuel cells are costly to make, degenerate over time and are susceptible to impurities. Quite simply, they die if the gas being fed into the cell is in any way impure. So there are many challenges that need to be addressed." In the Netherlands there is a firm belief that fuel cells are the thing of the future. "In the course of the next decade we will see a major breakthrough in the use of fuel cells," predicts Jan Pieter Ouweltjes. By Gitte Roe Eriksen Published: 8.5.2006
The Technical University of Denmark has a so-called two-stage gasification process in operation. For many years COWI has enjoyed close collaboration with the university's researchers on the development, upscaling and optimising of this process. Head of gasification activities at the Technical University of Denmark, Ulrik Henriksen, says: "The two-stage process can convert bio fuels such as straw, wood chips or briquettes into a combustible gas. The gas from the two-stage process is characterised by extremely low tar content and high hydrogen content, which is ideal for optimum fuel cell performance."