Methanol and Fuel Cells — a Perfect Match

Apr 11, 2019 · 5 min read

At Siqens, a fuel cell company, we believe Methanol plays a key role in powering our sustainable future. Why is this?

For the Ecoport 800, our core product, we have developed the highly efficient 4CycleTec by combining Direct Methanol Fuel Cells (DFMC) and High Temperature Fuel Cells (HT-PEM) into a new concept, the High Temperature Methanol Fuel Cell (HT-MFC). This has allowed us to generate significant customer benefits such as 70 % lower fuel costs, 99 % lower air pollutants and 90 % lower noise emissions compared to diesel generators in the low kW range. Our fuel cell provides clean energy and safe, silent, low-emissions and low-maintenance operation in all climate zones and at any time. Fuel cells require hydrogen as an energy source. Methanol, as a hydrogen carrier, is our choice fuel because of its high energy density of 4.4 kWh per litre, as well as the easy handling, global availability and use with existing infrastructure.

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Fuel cells are best used in off-grid scenarios. Stationary (producing anything from 0.5 kW to more than 10 kWe) and portable fuel cells (producing between 0.5 and 5 kW) can power telecommunications base stations, measuring technology for data collection in remote locations, motorway video surveillance, beacon lights during wind park construction, remote or self-sufficient buildings, mobile phones, gardening equipment, radios, military personal equipment and auxiliary power units on sailing boats. Currently, off-grid power situations are handled with diesel generators. Noisy, polluting and requiring regular maintenance, these units are still ubiquitous but they are increasingly being replaced by solar, small-scale wind, fuel cells and hybrid solutions. A combination of concern over air pollution from nitrous oxide, particle matter and CO2, increasing fuel costs and rapidly falling costs for renewable solutions are pushing diesel generators out of use. Rural economies — from Bangladesh to Zambia — are turning their backs on diesel. It is estimated that 115 million tonnes of CO2 can be eliminating from diesel mini-grids per year.

Fuel cells, either as stand-alone power sources or in combination with solar or wind, are the perfect answer for off-grid energy demand. Overland power cables are an interesting use case. Transporting large amounts of electricity over long distances, puts demand on the cables, especially in cold climates. The power load on the cables and the cables themselves need to be monitored by an electrical device, and must be guaranteed 24/7, all seasons and in any weather. Fuel cells provide low maintenance, efficient and secure energy to ensuring the device is constantly supplied. With enough Methanol, the fuel cell can run for more than 3,000 hours non-stop providing 500 W output power, more than 125 days without maintenance. A 900 litre barrel of Methanol provides nine months of autonomous operation. Given the remoteness of some power sites, this leads to serious cost-savings.

A further example is wind energy. To find a suitable location for a wind park, wind measurements must be carried out. They are essential for the economic efficiency of the facilities and return on investment. Nowadays, such measurements are carried out with SoDAR (Sonic Detection and Ranging) or LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) measurement methods and usually take 6–18 months of uninterrupted measurements. The data collection takes place in locations far from any power grid. Varying weather conditions mean that solar or micro wind turbines cannot ensure uninterrupted supply. Small diesel or gasoline generators, as they are often used, have their own disadvantages. Once the construction is completed, the wind turbine only needs to be connected to the power grid to add more clean energy to the mix. However, this can take up to six months.

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During this time the plant can neither produce electricity nor is there any available for its own supply. This is a problem, as wind turbines are legally required to be equipped with obstruction lights. The same fuel cell, which powered the data collection, is now the simple solution for supplying the obstruction lights.

The mobility sector is a further interesting area where Methanol-consuming fuel cells can contribute to the shift in future power supply and use. The current generation of petrol and diesel cars and vans contribute significantly to the carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, hydrocarbon, particle matter and carbon monoxide emissions with their disastrous impact on the climate and human health. Nitrogen oxides and particle matter, especially, have enjoyed a lot of focus in recent years due to their impact on human health. With tighter emissions and testing standards, the chase for alternative drive technology is in full swing. Will it be pure hydrogen vehicles? Will it be battery-electric vehicles? Or hybrids? Or a mix of different technologies?

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Methanol has two roles to play here. It is a primary fuel in its own right and can be mixed with petroleum to be used in combustion-battery-hybrid vehicles, for example. Methanol can be used as a hydrogen carrier for battery-fuel-cell-hybrid vehicles. At Siqens, we are following this approach and see considerable opportunities for cleaning up the transport sector, especially with regards to delivery and utility vehicles in urban and remote areas. Moving away from combustion engines produces problems; pure hydrogen technology requires considerable investment in fuelling infrastructure and drive technology. Battery-electric vehicles also need infrastructure investment as well as suffering from a limited range. Delivery vans are on the road for much longer than private cars. The battery will run down sooner. Added to this is the need to supply auxiliary units such as cooling or heating the driver cabin and running electric devices. This saps the battery power and reduces the range and, therefore, the utility of the vehicle. By adapting the power sources, the battery power can significantly extend. Installing a 42 kg fuel cell, excluding the Methanol canisters, is hardly space consuming but provides power to re-charge the drive battery, cool the cabin in summer and heat it in winter. Any number of auxiliary units can be connected without losing drive power. Re-fuelling Methanol, either at a central depot, at a fuel station or from canisters is easy. As a liquid, Methanol can use existing infrastructure with minimal adaptations, which is an important factor for governments and industries looking to move away from dirty oil. Palcan, a fuel cell company, estimated the costs at 4,000 US dollars for adapting a single fuelling station in China.

As the mobility sectors transitions away from oil, the interplay of infrastructure, alternative fuels and drive technology are the frontline of this development.

At Siqens, we have orientated our impact strategy and work towards replacing diesel generators and closing the off-grid energy gap with solar and wind by providing an easy and reliable hybrid solution. The same applies to the mobility sector. Combining Methanol with fuel cells produces clean, silent off-grid power for anybody, anywhere!

Find our more about the advantages of Methanol from the Methanol Institute.

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