Image: Fraunhofer IPA

Fuel cells to make diesel generators obsolete

Diesel generators often take over the local power supply in developing and emerging countries – and blow millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In order to save these emissions in the future, a research team from Fraunhofer IPA, together with CBC GmbH & Co. KG and the University of Bayreuth, is currently developing a power generator that runs on hydrogen.

The fact that every household is connected to the power grid and that power outages are the absolute exception is a matter of course in Germany. But in large parts of the world, the situation is quite different: There is often no nationwide power supply, but at best unstable regional networks. In India alone, 100 million people are still not connected to the power grid at all. Many companies there are supplied with electricity not by power plants but by diesel generators. Together, they generate about 940 million tons ofCO2, but provide only 30 percent of the electricity, 140 gigawatts. Because fuel is in short supply in some places in India and is often stolen, there are daily power outages that last eight hours or longer.

In the long term, diesel generators must be replaced with zero-emission alternatives. Fuel cells, in particular, come into question for this purpose. Technically and economically, fuel cells offer a viable alternative to battery systems due to their system characteristics, especially in emergency and backup power supply. A research team from the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA and the Chair of Environmentally Friendly Production Technology at the University of Bayreuth, together with CBC GmbH & Co. KG from Ibbenbüren, will therefore develop a decentralized power generator based on fuel cells and test it in practice over the next three years.

Closed-loop concept extends utilization phase

Of course, the scientists do not have to develop the fuel cell from scratch, but they do have to develop the entire periphery, such as the heat exchanger, air filter and buffer cell. They must match the size and capacity of the individual components so that the generator reliably produces storm. This also requires a battery. “It has to step in whenever there is more demand for electricity than the fuel cell can supply,” explains Friedrich-Wilhelm Speckmann from the Center for Digitized Battery Cell Production (ZDB) at Fraunhofer IPA. “In quieter phases, the battery storage system is recharged with excess electricity.”

In general, the entire system has to be adapted to the conditions in India. In addition to extreme environmental conditions with temperatures of up to 50 degrees Celsius, this also includes the longest possible and most cost-effective utilization phase. The research team will therefore also develop a closed-loop concept tailored to decentralized power supply. “Initially, this includes predictive maintenance and service measures,” says Jan Koller from the Process Innovation Project Group in Bayreuth, which is part of the Fraunhofer IPA. “In the long term, however, the reuse and remanufacturing of individual components is also important.”

For the test phase, the research team is currently still looking for a suitable partner and location in India and is supported by the Indo-German Chamber of Commerce (AHK India). For comparison purposes, a second prototype will be put into operation at CBC in Ibbenbüren, North Rhine-Westphalia.

Modular design enables a wide range of applications The demonstrator plant will be designed according to the modular design principle. This will later make it possible to produce scalable and versatile decentralized power generators in a simple manner. In the end, this also reduces production costs and increases competitiveness compared to diesel generators. This is because emergency power generators or mobile generators for humanitarian aid operations are to be developed later on the basis of the prototype. At the same time, the prototype will also serve as a basis for the development of fast-charging stations at which battery-powered machines can be recharged. This ensures extensive use of fuel cell technology in regions with no or unstable power supply.

The German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection (BMUV) is funding the research project as part of the “Environmental Technologies Export Initiative” program with a total of around 1.62 million euros over the next three years. Of this, around 686,000 euros will go to the Fraunhofer IPA. The project is supported by the National Organization Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology (NOW GmbH), which is responsible for the thematic focus hydrogen and fuel cell technologies for decentralized and off-grid power supply of the export initiative as a program company on behalf of the BMUV.