November 1, 2004

Alaska fuel-cell test passes one year

A 5-kilowatt solid oxide fuel cell installed in Fairbanks, Alaska, successfully passed the one-year field operational mark.

The University of Alaska at Fairbanks has been testing fuel-cell systems, which convert natural gas to grid-compatible AC electricity, for more than six years. Fuel cells have the potential for highly reliable and efficient small-scale systems for remote power applications that may mean a significant reduction in fuel consumption and CO2 production. Because system lifetime and reliability are major issues preventing deployment of these systems in remote areas, the one-year mark represents a milestone for solid oxide fuel-cell systems toward proving that the technology is coming of age.

The unit has operated for 8,700 hours and provided 24,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity to the Fairbanks Natural Gas facility. That, together with an average of 2 kilowatt-hours of generated heat, brings the total system efficiency to 70%, an efficiency gain compared to current systems of similar size, such as small diesel generators, which operate at 25% electrical efficiency.

The fuel cell functioned 91.5% of the time over the past year, a significant number, as the U.S. Department of Defense, a potential user of the cell, requires a minimum 90% efficiency. During the past year, only one unplanned interruption of service occurred, when a software error resulted in a system shutdown that caused some changes to the fuel-cell system. Since then, the unit has continued to run reliably at a slightly reduced power.

Engineers at Fuel Cell Technologies (FCT) of Kingston, Ontario, said their new system design precludes the problem from recurring in second-generation units.

FCT has continuously monitored the system at its Kingston facility using its own remote monitoring software.