Fuel Cells: Not Just for Vehicles Anymore

Abstract: While the brunt of fuel cell research is going into powering autos and lighting and heating buildings, efforts are also going into using them to run offshore oil and gas facilities.

Analysis:We're hearing more almost every day about the coming of the "hydrogen age," a new era—not too far away, say scientists—in which all electric power will be generated by the fuel cell, an electrochemical device that in its various forms combines hydrogen with oxygen to generate electric current.

A fuel cell, based on technology first developed in the 19th century, works something like a battery, but does not run down or need recharging. Like a battery, each cell consists of two electrodes—a negative anode and a positive cathode—sandwiched inside an electrolyte. Hydrogen is fed to the anode, and oxygen is fed to the cathode. Activated by a catalyst, hydrogen atoms separate into protons and electrons, which take different paths to the cathode. The electrons go through an external circuit, creating the electric current. The protons migrate through the electrolyte to the cathode, where they reunite with oxygen and start the ball rolling again. The electrons produce only two byproducts—water and heat. And with no moving parts, the fuel cell is quiet—there's a barely audible hum. What's more, it's a very reliable power source, say adherents. They've been used to furnish electric power in spacecraft for years.

As scientists see it, small but potent electric motors will use fuel cell power to drive automobiles, trucks, buses, etc. What's more, every home and business will have its own fuel cell-based power source, negating the need for electric utilities and all that goes with them. Fossil fuels, at least as we know them today, will be a quaint memory, they say. Well, it's pretty obvious all that won't happen at once. As with most technology developments, what actually will happen lies somewhere in between. Fossil fuels will be around for a long, long time before hydrogen fuels succeed them, if that's even possible. In fact, one popular form of fuel cell uses natural gas as the source of its hydrogen, and that type is the basis of one of the fuel cells carmakers plan to use in automobiles. Several manufacturers say they'll have such cars available as soon as 2004.

But don't count on it. Cost and bulk—rather than the sky—are the current limits for fuel cells other than those destined for vehicles. Even though 250-kw units have been installed for distributed power and heat in nearly 100 sites around the world, they were expensive. A 500-kw cell, if built to order, would cost around $1 million or more, with the price rising incrementally with added capacity.

Current fuel cells are also hefty. A 250-kw model available from one company is about the size of a railroad boxcar. However, manufacturers are designing smaller, more powerful units, and there's little doubt that reductions in size can be matched with increases in kilowatt capacity during the next few years.

Meanwhile, fuel cell research continues around the world. And while the brunt of current emphasis is on developing them to power vehicles and to light and heat buildings, the budding fuel cell industry is researching ways to spread their use into other areas, as well. For example, in lieu of ultimately replacing conventional electric power generation and distribution, fuel cells could be used by industry as a way to lower their manufacturing costs. In time, fuel cells could become a familiar sight across all industries, and applied wherever and whenever they're deemed practical.

Not surprisingly, major oil companies already are deeply involved in fuel cell research, and not just for automotive or distributed power to consumers. Once downsized in bulk and their cost per kilowatt-hour brought more in line with that of diesel- and turbine-driven power packages, fuel cells likely will be applied across a wide spectrum of both upstream and downstream oil and gas operations. Downstream, the possibilities are limitless for fuel cells. Their upstream applications, however, are almost as numerous, and range from powering remote drilling and production operations to energizing subsea facilities and even operating downhole tools and instruments, to name just a few. In fact, fuel cell use for offshore production may be a reality in the not-too-distant future.

Royal Dutch/Shell's Norwegian unit, Norske Shell, recently partnered with two other Norwegian companies—Aker Kvaerner and Statkraft—to explore possible applications for natural gas-driven fuel cell technology, including using them to power offshore production facilities in the North Sea. A project team from the three companies will perform a pilot study to explore more closely the technology's potential. They aim to complete the project by 2010 with the intention of becoming the first in the world to develop and commercialize large-scale, 10- to 20-megawatt solid-oxide fuel cells that use natural gas as their source fuel.

Aker Kvaerner is a leading supplier of petroleum industry products and services around the world, and Statkraft is Norway's state-run electric power generation organization, having developed that country's sources of hydroelectric power.

A major goal of the Norwegian fuel cell research is centered on that country's maturing offshore oil and gas industry, in which smaller and smaller fields are being discovered, and where existing reservoirs are entering the later development stage. Cutting the cost of operating offshore production facilities has become a major issue for companies involved there. What's more, Norway itself is committed to stemming carbon dioxide generation associated with conventional internal combustion engines, including those used offshore. Much less CO2 is emitted by natural gas-driven fuel cells.

The study also will investigate how a vigorous fuel cell design and manufacturing industry would impact the creation of jobs.

According to the three companies, advantages of commercialization of the technology would include reduced CO2 emissions and high energy efficiency, combined with more environmentally friendly production of electricity not only offshore, but on the mainland and in the transport sector, as well. The companies estimated that the study would cost something like US$130 million.

In cooperation with Seimens Westinghouse, Shell and the others are building a small-scale (250-kw) fuel cell pilot unit in Norway. It is scheduled to be in operation by 2004. Meanwhile, Shell is excited about the study. A company executive told a Montreal meeting of the World Hydrogen Energy Congress recently that of the thousands of offshore platforms that exist around the world, many are far from shore and are powered by gas turbine engines, a sizeable source of CO2 emissions. Diesel engines also remain on older facilities, even though they must be supplied with fuel from shore, an expensive endeavor.

So, even if they were applied only for auxiliary power, the use of natural gas-driven fuel cells to power offshore facilities could save offshore operators significant outlays for fuel, bulk, and transportation.

The Shell-Aker Kvaerner-Statkraft initiative already has been recognized as a pioneering effort by the petroleum industry to bring fuel cells into upstream operations. Only last August, the organizers of the Offshore Northern Seas conference, held in Stavanger, Norway, presented its 2002 Innovation Award to the project.

While the work by the Norwegian companies probably has the highest profile currently, a number of initiatives elsewhere around the world, including the U.S., also are delving into using fuel cells to power such upstream equipment as remote oil and gas storage facilities, offshore tanker-loading terminals, and even mobile drilling units, to name a few.

So, while to some it might seem a bit incongruous that fuel cells would be used to produce oil and gas, to others it might signify the reality that all forms of energy—from solar panels to wind turbines, from geothermal heat to crude oil and natural gas and, yes, even fuel cells—must be combined to keep things going into the future.