ARCHIVED - Clean stacks: green power for homes

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April 08, 2008— Ottawa, Ontario

When Jean-Guy Chouinard was director of Quebec's Natural Gas Technology Centre, he was on the lookout for green solutions that would reduce the environmental impact of natural gas heating. That was when fuel cells caught his attention, and he has never looked back.

Today, the company that Chouinard co-founded, Hyteon Inc., has designed a complete fuel cell system that can power a home while reducing its carbon dioxide emissions by up to 40 percent. The proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell was perfected with help from the modeling group at NRC's Institute for Fuel Cell Innovation (NRC-IFCI) in Vancouver, and the design is now being tested by major utilities in Europe and Japan.

Vancouver is home to the world's largest cluster of fuel cell expertise, with NRC-IFCI at its centre.
Vancouver is home to the world's largest cluster of fuel cell expertise, with NRC-IFCI at its centre.

Energy costs in Japan and some parts of Europe are among the highest in the world, and fuel cells are gaining great interest as a possible energy source for homes. But in order to offer a practical alternative to coal-fired and natural gas central power plants, fuel cells must reach extremely high levels of efficiency. "The name of the game is to have a system that is highly efficient at producing electricity while always recovering heat at the same time," says Chouinard.

Hyteon's unit, called a combined heat and power system (CHP), works in tandem with the electrical grid to meet all of a home's electricity needs. As an added bonus, the CHP recovers heat in the form of hot water that can be used for the home. "Homeowners see a savings on their annual energy bills, which provides a payback on the investment," says Chouinard.

The fuel cell stack runs on a gas mixture called "syngas," which contains mostly hydrogen. In order for the stack to reach peak efficiency, the gas must flow uniformly throughout the stack so that each cell carries an equal share of the load. "If some parts of the stack work harder than others, then the overall lifetime of the unit is shortened," says Dr. Simon Liu, leader of the modelling group at NRC-IFCI. The design of the unit must be finely tuned to reach this high level of performance. "It's very difficult for designers to figure this out without detailed modeling and simulation," says Dr. Liu.

NRC created a 3D model of Hyteon's design and simulated the flow of gas through the stack. "We gave them the whole picture — where the gas concentration was high, where it was low, and where it was moving too quickly or slowly," says Dr. Liu.

The results helped Hyteon to perfect the design and surpass their goal of 90 percent system efficiency — more than enough to interest their European and Japanese clients. Without access to a 3D model, Hyteon would have been forced to build expensive prototypes to see their design in action. "This was the most important benefit for us," says Chouinard. "Through proper simulation, we avoided prototype costs."

Hyteon's CHP units are also attracting interest from Canadian utilities — in particular for use in remote areas where electricity cost is very high. "Our product offers potential for change in a practical way," says Chouinard. "It's a very viable technology that allows people to do something for the environment."

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National Research Council of Canada
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