Skip to main content

Fuel Cells

Fuel cells are another renewable energy option that may help your campus reach its energy goals. Fuel cells are electrochemical devices that convert chemical energy into electrical energy directly from a fuel and oxidant source reaction. While similar to a typical battery, fuel cells can continuously generate electrical energy as long as fuel and oxidant sources are regularly supplied. Fuel cells can achieve a high fuel-to-electricity conversion efficiency because instead of combustion, the chemical energy of a fuel is directly converted into electrical energy. During operation, fuel cells produce very little emissions and operate very quietly.

Learn about fuel cell technology and how it may fit into a climate action plan for your research campus, including:

Considerations for Campus Fuel Cell Installations

Research campuses should consider the following opportunities before undertaking a fuel cell assessment or installation.

Is there an opportunity to capture and use the waste heat generated by the fuel cell for heat and power cogeneration?

Fuel cells are highly efficient in converting fuel into heat and electricity at the point of power generation. When produced near the point of use, owners can capture and utilize the heat energy produced. Total efficiencies are very high when used in this application.

Does the campus have a ready supply of fuel such as a nearby landfill, wastewater treatment plant, or anaerobic digester gas that could be used to generate power in a fuel cell?

Fuel cells can utilize renewable fuel sources such as biomass and biowaste, landfill gas, and wastewater treatment gas effluent to produce low emitting reliable power.

Does the campus have faculty currently conducting research in a particular field of fuel cell energy?

Campuses with faculty conducting fuel cell research can use a fuel cell as an educational tool as well as for energy generation. Additionally, faculty can be a good source of information about how to move forward with the process. Campuses with partnerships with industry leaders in fuel cell technology can use the partnership to develop fuel cells on campus.

Does your campus support telecommunications networks where there is a need for reliable backup DC power supply?

In the event of a grid power failure or power fluctuation, fuel cells can provide reliable backup power to sensitive computer and telecommunications equipment.

Leading Example: University of California San Diego

Image of bulldozer on a construction site with a college campus in the background.

Fuel cell installation in progress, June 2011.
Credit: Rhett Miller, UC San Diego

The University of California San Diego is currently constructing a 2.8-megawatt (MW) fuel cell. When completed, the fuel cell will be the largest research campus installation and will provide approximately 8% of the total University energy needs. The fuel cell utilizes waste methane gas from a nearby wastewater treatment plant and is being funded entirely through state incentives, private investment, loans, and investment tax credits.

The local wastewater treatment plant is also benefiting by selling the purified biogas which is supplied to the fuel cell. Additional information on this exciting fuel cell installation can be found on the UC San Diego Sustainability Solutions Institute website.

Additional examples of research campus fuel cell projects include:

  • CSU Northridge: A 1 MW cogeneration fuel cell installation that provides base electrical load for the university facilities and captures waste heat to generate hot water. Additionally, the exhaust carbon dioxide is routed to an adjacent greenhouse to enhance plant growth and may provide opportunities for specialized plant research.
  • SUNY College of Environmental Science & Forestry: A 250-kw fuel cell power plant installed to provide both heat and power. The project was financed primarily through state and federal incentives and provided valuable suitability and feasibility testing data. The fuel cell is featured in several campus courses and has helped spur the development of a renewable energy minor at the school.

The following resources explain the fundamentals of fuel cell technologies: