Australia's clean green energy source of the future, the ceramic fuel cell, has achieved a key milestone with its first successful demonstration of a 5 kilowatt unit enough to supply power for several homes.
The solid oxide fuel cell is a novel source of electrical energy which is twice as efficient as conventional power generation. It cuts greenhouse emissions in half and pollution to a fraction of present levels.
Developed by CSIRO and Ceramic Fuel Cells Ltd (CFCL), the 3-5 kilowatt fuel cell stack module has successfully completed 200 hours continuous operation at 3kW, and attained power outputs as high as 5.5 kW, according to CFCL general manager Dr Sukhvinder Badwal.
Dr Badwal said the achievement placed Australia's CFCL in the world front rank in the development of fuel cell technology, alongside giants such as Siemens, Mitsubishi and Westinghouse.
The CFCL test stack consists of 400 ceramic fuel cells arranged in 50 layers with a collective power output of more that 5000 watts.
"The beauty of this technology is that it is modular. By adding more fuel cells you can build it up to 25 kW or even higher," Dr Badwal says.
"It can be scaled up to 100 or even 200 kW, and CFCL aims to achieve that before the end of the century. The successful demonstration of a 5kW unit marks a major milestone in the research and development phase."
The company sees world market potential for power generation units in the 100-300kW range ideal for providing electricity to rural communities, large factories, or for extending the metropolitan power grid to new suburbs economically.
However it will also be possible to group several 200kW fuel cell stacks together to create power stations in the megawatt range.
Dr Badwal says the Australian fuel cell technology is low cost compared with that of competitors: the cells are interconnected using a special stainless steel which is substantially cheaper than the exotic alloys others employ.
Trials so far indicate that a 200kW fuel cell stack will be 80 per cent efficient at power generation, compared with the 35 per cent efficiency of a normal coal-fired station and 29 per cent of plants fired by brown coal.
"You could say that the fuel cell will produce power at double or more than double the efficiency of existing systems and that means you are producing half the greenhouse emissions per kilowatt of electricity generated. Levels of pollution with nitrogen oxide are lower by an order of magnitude," Dr Badwal says.
With its first major trial successfully completed, CFCL is moving into the second phase. This calls for an operational 25kW fuel cell stack by late 1998 and a 100kW prototype plant before the end of the year 2000, both powered by natural gas, says Dr Bruce Godfrey, the newly-appointed managing director of CFCL.
Ceramic Fuel Cells Ltd is an Australasian enterprise backed by CSIRO, the Energy Research and Development Corporation, Western Power Corporation, the Electricity Trust of South Australia, Pacific Power, the Strategic Industry Research Foundation, BHP Ltd, the Electricity Corporation of New Zealand and the SE Queensland Electricity Corporation.