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Maximising micro-machines

With the costs of gas and electricity you buy from the grid rising almost quarterly, wouldn't it be great to own your own mini power plant? Well that could be your reality in a few years time as micro-combined heat and power technology (micro-CHP) spreads into the domestic market.

Micro-CHP can be powered in different ways, using internal combustion and sterling engines for example. This blog, however, investigates those powered by fuel cells.

Fuel cells? Sounds a bit space age right? Well…right, they have been powering NASA space crafts for over 50 years; racking up nearly 100,000 hours of operation over 100 missions. Their most famous voyage was on the NASA Apollo missions in the 60s and 70s.

Now this final frontier technology might be flying into your home!

Fuel cell micro-CHP works from taking a hydrogen containing fuel (usually natural gas from the mains) and using it to produce electricity and heat. The natural gas is processed to produce a hydrogen enriched gas; this is then passed over the fuel cell where it reacts with oxygen in the air to produce water and energy:

2 Hydrogen + Oxygen > Water + Energy

This energy can then be used to power and heat your home and hot water.

This process is very efficient, much more than electricity produced at a power -plant, and if you don’t use all the power your system produces then you can simply sell it back to the grid, much like you do with solar panels.

Unfortunately the micro-CHP won’t be able to produce all the heat and electricity you require when you want it so many also come with a ‘peak demand boiler’. This pretty much does what it says on the tin and acts as a normal boiler when your demand for heating or hot water peaks.

Also, as well as having the ability to sell to the grid you can also purchase electricity from it too (just like the old days) ensuring your lights or television never go off unintended.

This technology, although in the relatively early stages of development and deployment, can help play a large part in reducing the UK’s domestic CO2 emissions by ensuring the creation of heat and power is be more efficient. It can also help consumers save money in a volatile market where electricity prices have recently rocketed.

More research into this technology needs to take place before it is developed and cost-effective enough to be installed across the country. So why are we talking about it here, now?

Well, a team of 26 European partners (including our technologies team) have come together to develop Europe’s largest ever fuel cell micro-CHP field trial, Ene.field.

The project, which is co-funded by the European Commission’s Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking Programme (FCH JU), will deploy nearly 1,000 installations of the technology in 9 different countries.  Nine different manufacturers are involved and over 200 installations will take place right here in the UK.

The aims of Ene.field will come as no surprise: to get real-life performance data, both economic and environmental, and ultimately to help increase the number and quality of installations out there.

The project also aims to bring the industry together to form new specific codes and standards for product manufacturer and installation – making sure what’s learnt is enshrined and guaranteed. The technology may be ‘micro’ but with the right guidance, it could have a big future.

Test test test

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