ARCHIVED - Goal: net zero energy consumption

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April 08, 2008— Ottawa, Ontario

Lining the top of the facility's atrium skylights are 93 photovoltaic panels that turn solar energy into electrical power.

In one of its newest research facilities, NRC is walking the talk when it comes to clean, energy-efficient technologies. The new $20 million building that houses the NRC Institute for Fuel Cell Innovation (NRC-IFCI) in Vancouver is not just an ultramodern workplace for scientists and engineers to develop and test hydrogen and fuel cell systems. It's also a living lab in which technologies that rely on fuel cell and hydrogen advances are incorporated into the building's design and construction. These technologies provide valuable insights about how well they would work in real building conditions, and what needs to be considered to regulate such technologies for wider use.

According to David Semczyszyn, Director of Operations and Technology Demonstration at NRC-IFCI, the building is a showcase for hydrogen and fuel cell technologies. "We're using a 5-kilowatt solid-oxide fuel cell inside the building to provide heat and electricity. It's one of our demo projects." He explains that this fuel cell is working in tandem with ground source heat pumps that transfer the heat to floor heating coils. "It's a great opportunity to see exactly how effective a fuel-cell heating system could be in various energy-demand scenarios."

Another alternative energy technology is the building-wide system of photovoltaic cells (solar panels) installed in skylights, roofs and walls. These cells power a hydrogen electrolyzer that separates water into hydrogen and oxygen. NRC researchers are looking at using stored hydrogen in photovoltaic applications as a potential alternative to batteries for stored electricity. "We're testing the hydrogen produced by this system to see if we can use it for lab experiments," says Semczyszyn. "We're also looking into using this hydrogen in fuel cells that would back up our power supply for the building's computer network and cell phone booster station."

Pointing to the advantages of using the hydrogen produced on site, Semczyszyn comments: "Most commercially available hydrogen is produced by processing natural gas which is then compressed and transported by truck or rail — a process that emits greenhouse gases. We're way ahead by using photovoltaic cells for our heat and power because they produce hydrogen without emitting greenhouse gases."

With hydrogen and fuel cell systems running in their own workplace, NRC researchers have an exceptional opportunity not just to determine their effectiveness and safety, but also to test the best ways to install and integrate them. Because fuel cells and hydrogen delivery systems are not yet widely used, Canada is still in the early stages of developing and applying the codes and standards for their installation and use. NRC engineers have laid the groundwork for future regulations by using sound engineering principles to install the indoor fuel cell and ensure it operates safely. They have also developed extensive safety procedures and fire-detection systems for the building, given that hydrogen is highly flammable. Their objective is to share what they've learned about such alternative energy systems in buildings, and work with officials toward removing regulatory barriers to their widespread use.

Despite the experiments going on at every turn, people walking around this research facility don't get the impression they're cloistered in a windowless lab. During the planning stage, NRC-IFCI called on a consortium of researchers in the fields of engineering, acoustics, indoor air quality, architecture and lighting to create the most comfortable conditions possible. Not only are there double-glazed energy-efficient windows everywhere, but daylight reaches deep into the most central office spaces. Employees can open windows, adjust thermostats and vary their own lighting.

By all accounts, the NRC-IFCI facility is a well-run experiment that's yielding valuable information about hydrogen and fuel cell systems for buildings. Information like this could help pave the way to net zero energy consumption for tomorrow's built environment.

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada
613-991-1431
media@nrc-cnrc.gc.ca

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