The fuel cell, which uses chemical reactions to convert common elements into electrical energy, is a technology that was first developed in the mid-19th century. Advancements in the mid-20th century were used by the U.S. space program and have been increasingly used to provide power in educational, industrial, corporate and commercial facilities. This fuel cell was dedicated Feb. 21, 2006, and is part of SUNY-ESF’s commitment to sustainable practices.
Electrical current is produced by the movement of negatively charged electrons. In order to produce current, traditional coal-power plants use combustion to heat water and turn turbines; this process creates a significant amount of pollution. The fuel cell, however, uses chemical reactions to produce electrical current. This type of fuel cell is known as a molten carbonate fuel cell, using hydrogen produced from natural gas, carbon dioxide, and oxygen in its process. Within the fuel cell, these components are combined, initiating a chemical reaction in which the negatively charged electrons move through an external circuit toward a cathode, creating electrical current.
The benefits of this system are significant. This model generates 17 percent of ESF’s campus energy needs, at a rate of 250 kw per hour, which is enough energy to power approximately 2,500 100-watt light bulbs. There is little to no pollution, as many of the by products of the process can be recycled into the chemical reaction or used for other purposes. The heat produced from this fuel cell can be used to heat Walters Hall in the winter by means of a heat exchanger. This process also uses 50 percent less fuel per kw/hour than traditional combustion-based processes and is expected to reduce the use of oil by 3,500 barrels per year.
Because fuel cells produce significantly fewer pollutants than coal or fuel-oil based technologies, they can help reduce overall pollution. Future research will help replace dependence on natural gas and allow the process to run on methane generated from renewable biomass materials like willow. This will result in a more sustainable, cleaner energy and heat source.