Standards prepared as fuel cells go commercial

By Jeanne Erdmann, reprinted with permission from IEC E-TECH, March 2010.

Fuel cells pack an energy punch. They're energy efficient and can produce electricity for a variety of systems, including mobile telephones, laptop computers, ships, airplanes, forklifts, factories, and private households. Such versatility means that fuel cells can be used worldwide, and worldwide applications call for international Standards.

IEC technical committee 105, 'Fuel cell technologies', has already prepared a number of Standards on safety, installation, and performance of both stationary fuel cell systems and portable and micro fuel cells to help shepherd fuel cell technologies from research and development to the market.

Technical committee 105 held its first plenary meeting in 2000 in Frankfurt, Germany, with the aim of preparing such Standards. That meeting has since been followed by another eight, underlining the high activity of the technical committee. Professor Wolfgang Winkler, presently technical committee 105 secretary, attended the plenary meetings from the beginning. A mechanical engineer specialising in fuel cells system thermodynamics and system integration, Winkler says that Standards will help the fuel cell industry sell products worldwide.

The market for fuel cells will grow to an estimated USD 10 billion by 2020 with more than 90% of that encompassing North America, the Asia-Pacific region, and the European Union. The size reflects the demand and application for energy conversion systems, starting from micro devices and proceeding to farm equipment, cars, boats, and trains to larger stationary systems.

Winkler says that international Standards can help to open the market by showing potential investors that groundwork has already been well prepared and investigated, thus reducing risk to investors so they can indirectly mobilise capital.

The technical committee also has Standards for micro fuel cell power systems that can power micro devices, such as mobile telephones and laptop computers, and is working on Standards for methanol-powered fuel cells that extend the operation time of batteries significantly by recharging. Fuel cell technologies – Part 6-100: Micro fuel cell power systems – Safety IEC 62282-6-100 is the new international Standard published in March 2010 that will make a big difference to a great number of applications. It relates to units that are wearable or easily carried by hand and therefore provides provision for all types of travelling and off the grid power supplies.

The principle challenge facing the micro devices, says Winkler, is mobilising investment to build factories and then increasing production in an efficient manner to reduce the price.

Another important issue is the cell testing itself for guaranteeing international quality levels to support the international trade of fuel cell components.

Today, the transportation sector is another interesting area for technical committee 105. The standardisation in automotive applications is jointly done with 'Electrically propelled road vehicles' ISO technical committee 22/SC 21.

'International Standards can help to open the market by showing potential investors that groundwork has already been well prepared and investigated.'

Besides the automotive mass market, technical committee 105 is focusing on a number of other transportation applications. A recent study identified a principle demand for fuel cell Standards for bicycles, construction machines, forklifts, leisure equipment (for example, boats, yachts, camping buses), medical applications (for example, wheelchairs), mobile farming equipment, onboard aircraft (auxiliary power units [APU]), onboard ships (APU, propulsion), onboard trucks (APU, propulsion), rail systems (APU, propulsion) and robots.

The fuel to be used can be a logistic one, standardised worldwide, or specific in special cartridges as hydrogen or methanol. The place of use might be inside or outside of buildings. A survey within technical committee 105's national committees gave indications about the first candidates for new Standard developments as fuel cell systems for forklifts, APUs, as well as leisure and personal assistance.

In the future, the fuel cell and battery combination is expected to be used for a hybrid mix of fuel cells and electric storage for batteries and super capacitors. Already under development is a fuel cell and battery hybrid that helps recover energy as forklifts raise and lower loads. With good cooperation between battery and fuel cell, energy has to be supplied as the forklift raises its load and then recovered as the lift comes back down. The recovered electric power can be used in a generator to charge the battery and keep the cycle going.

The same principle can be used in cars because they also have different movements in two directions, for example up a hill and then down. 'This is like a pendulum,' explains Winkler. 'During acceleration, or going uphill, energy of a battery is consumed. But during slowing down or going downhill the energy can be partially recovered and stored again in the battery. The fuel cell is needed to replace the energy losses caused mainly by friction.'

Meeting these technological challenges will keep technical committee 105 busy. It has already prepared first generation Standards. Now, members are evaluating those Standards with recent experience and improving them. 'The Standards will be currently improved in so-called maintenance cycles because we want safe fuel cells with good operation and infrastructure,' says Winkler. 'This is one of the most important features for Standards.'

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