Fuel cells powered by natural gas are an extremely exciting and promising new technology for the clean and efficient generation of electricity. Fuel cells have the ability to generate electricity using electrochemical reactions as opposed to combustion of fossil fuels to generate electricity. Essentially, a fuel cell works by passing streams of fuel (usually hydrogen) and oxidants over electrodes that are separated by an electrolyte. This produces a chemical reaction that generates electricity without requiring the combustion of fuel, or the addition of heat as is common in the traditional generation of electricity. When pure hydrogen is used as fuel, and pure oxygen is used as the oxidant, the reaction that takes place within a fuel cell produces only water, heat, and electricity. In practice, fuel cells result in very low emission of harmful pollutants, and the generation of high-quality, reliable electricity. The use of natural gas-powered fuel cells has a number of benefits, including:
- Clean Electricity – Fuel cells provide the cleanest method of producing electricity from fossil fuels. While a pure hydrogen, pure oxygen fuel cell produces only water, electricity, and heat, fuel cells in practice emit trace amounts of sulfur compounds and very low levels of carbon dioxide. However, the carbon dioxide produced by fuel cell use is concentrated and can be readily recaptured, as opposed to being emitted into the atmosphere.
- Distributed Generation – Fuel cells can come in extremely compact sizes, allowing for their placement wherever electricity is needed. This includes residential, commercial, industrial, and even transportation settings.
- Dependability – Fuel cells are completely enclosed units, with no moving parts or complicated machinery. This translates into a dependable source of electricity, capable of operating for thousands of hours. In addition, they are very quiet and safe sources of electricity. Fuel cells also do not have electricity surges, meaning they can be used where a constant, dependable source of electricity is needed.
- Efficiency – Fuel cells convert the energy stored within fossil fuels into electricity much more efficiently than traditional generation of electricity using combustion. This means that less fuel is required to produce the same amount of electricity. The National Energy Technology Laboratory estimates that, used in combination with natural gas turbines, fuel cell generation facilities can be produced that will operate in the 1-to-20-Megawatt range at 70 percent efficiency, which is much higher than the efficiencies that can be reached by traditional generation methods within that output range.
The generation of electricity has traditionally been a very polluting, inefficient process. However, with new fuel cell technology, the future of electricity generation is expected to change dramatically in the next ten to twenty years. Research and development into fuel cell technology is ongoing, to ensure that the technology is refined to a level where it is cost-effective for all varieties of electric generation requirements.