The Power of Two
Duality is a concept that runs throughout almost everything about Ballard Power System's AirGen fuel cell generator, from its early co-development with Coleman Powermate to the two-element chemical process that makes it work. Perhaps most importantly, though, the 2-foot tall portable unit combines the instant-start capability of a UPS with the extended run time of a generator, which is an attractive combo in a time when most people trust grid power as much as they do used car salesmen. “Power systems are becoming more and more unreliable,” says Mike Rosenberg, Ballard's director of corporate relations. “So there's a growing need for backup power with extended run time.”
The recent spate of blackouts, brownouts, and outages in the United States and Europe may make the company's recent push to sell the UPS/generator to the home office/small office market a timely decision, but it wasn't necessarily the catalyst for its creation. More than two years ago Ballard introduced its 1kW Nexa hydrogen fuel cell to the market and challenged backup power supply manufacturers to use it to build a better mousetrap. Coleman, with whom Ballard had been collaborating, was the first to step up, designing an off-the-shelf power system that gave the fuel cell purpose. Coleman launched the AirGen in December 2002. The executives at Ballard knew a good thing when they saw it and bought the product in 2003.
The process that makes the UPS/generator work combines equal parts science fiction and science experiment to produce quiet, pollution-free power for hours longer than a large battery bank. To explain it, Rosenberg recalls a common high school chemistry experiment in which two probes pass electricity through water to separate it into its two base components, hydrogen and oxygen. “Basically, this is just the reverse of that process,” he says.
The fuel cell consists of a proton exchange membrane layered with a platinum-based catalyst positioned between two flow field plates. Hydrogen moves through channels in the flow field plate on one side of the membrane, and air moves through the plate on the other side. When the hydrogen comes in contact with the catalyst, it separates into protons and electrons. The electrons are conducted in the form of usable electric current through an external circuit and then recombine with the protons that have migrated through the membrane.
The idea of using hydrogen and oxygen to create electricity isn't a new one. Nor is the concept of the fuel cell. However, practicality and pricing have been stumbling points for the technology's pioneers, relegating the possibility of widespread use to science fiction movies and books until hydrogen is broadly available. Don't expect hydrogen to replace fossil fuels overnight, but with fuel cells Ballard is working to make it a viable option for those who can afford it.
Growing skepticism about grid power may offer the justification necessary for the expense, though. No one can predict the next blackout like the one that brought business in the Northeast to a standstill last August, but the UPS/generator is designed to offer the assurance of uninterruptible power and extended run time that critical power users need.
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