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Fuelling the future

Fuel cells are going to be an integral part of the future. The question is, will Pakistan be a part of this technology as a producer or as a consumer.

By Adeel Ghayur 

Fuel cell is a radical technology which can utilise an array of fuels to produce electricity. This technology converts chemical energy into direct current electricity. The process is exothermal, meaning it generates heat which can also be used to produce electricity thereby increasing the total efficiency of the device. Fuel cells can have up to 90 percent efficiency rates. Fuel cell technology was initially conceived to use hydrogen as fuel. In a fuel cell hydrogen is oxidised as a result of which electricity is produced. Oxidised hydrogen reacts with oxygen to produce water as a by-product.

It is important to note that fuel cells have recently become the centre of attention even though the technology itself dates back two centuries. It was in 1839 that the first fuel cell was demonstrated by William Robert Grove but it was the oil crises of the 1970s and the climate change issue in the 1990s which brought attention to the fuel cells, among other alternative energy technologies.

Fuel cells have yet to reach commercial viability despite the fact that intense research and development is being carried out globally. Two main factors hindering the commercialisation of fuel cells are their high costs and requirement of an affordable abundant hydrogen source. While advancements in technology are steadily decreasing fuel cell costs, researchers are looking towards other sources as fuel to replace hydrogen. Among these, coal, ethanol and methane are actively being pursued.

Pakistan’s energy resources are ideal for fuel cell technology. In the shape of Thar coal deposits, we have an enormous coal resource. Similarly, being an agrarian economy, there is limitless potential in Pakistan for conversion of biomass to bio-methane and bio-ethanol. Additionally, there already exists an extensive infrastructure for storage and transport of methane. Pakistan can use these strengths to capitalise on the fuel cell potential on two fronts. Firstly, this technology can be used to replace fossil fuel burning power plants and secondly, smaller units could be used to replace the combustion engines used in our cars.

Direct carbon fuel cells which use coal as fuel would be ideal for conversion of Thar coal to electricity. With nearly double the efficiency than conventional power plants, these fuel cells would use half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity. This would double the lifespan of Pakistan’s enormous coal reserves, which at the end of the day are limited. When comparing fuel cells with traditional coal-powered electricity plants, they have numerous other advantages as well, such as: shorter construction time, shorter start-up time, pollution-free electricity generation, less maintenance and so on.

Pakistani society has become well accustomed to methane gas as a fuel for cars. Additionally, with the fact that fuel cell cars can give up to twice the mileage than today’s cars the customers will not need much convincing. When the engine is replaced with a fuel cell, all the hassles of engines are also done away with

It is these benefits which are convincing and leading the international community towards fuel cells. However, no concrete steps have been taken in our country. We need to make a policy level decision; similar to the one that Brazil took about ethanol back in the 1970s. They took the decision on type of fuel while we need a decision on type of technology. We are accustomed to these types of decisions. It is about time that we realise that energy is critical for Pakistan’s survival, just as we did with nuclear technology. Today, no country can survive with a tattering economy, no matter how advanced its nuclear technology is. The USSR is the prime example of this. A strong economy is intricately linked with secure energy supply. Fuel cells can become the backbone of our economy if the country follows a well laid out plan and strategy with all the stakeholders on board. A phased approach would be needed to ensure Pakistan’s successful journey on the road to a fuel cell based world. In the first phase the government push would be needed to kick-start the fuel cell industry in Pakistan.

The kick-start can be in the shape of special fuel cell cabs similar to the yellow cabs. As fuel cell-powered cabs can economically run air conditioners, these cabs would truly win the hearts and minds of the public. Launching public buses running on fuel cells would further boost the technology. However, all this needs to be adequately supported by a strong industrial base, if the technology is to be sustainable.

Fuel cell manufacturing requires some precision engineering. At present the country does not have the capacity for this. Thus, government intervention is necessitated to import the technology along with the technical know-how for in-country manufacturing. This would prove invaluable in starting the fuel cell industry in Pakistan. To enable manufacturing of fuel cells in large quantities, special incentives would be required. In the beginning, the focus could be on two sizes; one for the power plants and another for the cars. Further costs could be reduced by concentrating on one technology and fuel source. Fuel cells can be constructed using a number of technologies. It would be more appropriate to first go for the one which has the fastest delivery time and is easiest to manufacture, rather than aiming for the best one. Once commercialisation is achieved in one technology, we can pursue the best technology. Methane could be the fuel of choice for fuel cells.

In the second phase, the industry will need to be supported with adequate human resource to expand and remain competitive. Coordination with universities would be required to develop undergraduate and postgraduate courses. This would need to be augmented with PhD and postdoctoral scholarships. In the third phase the industry will need to be expanded and technologically upgraded to ensure competitiveness in the international market. This in turn would help Pakistan become an important player on the global stage.

The current energy crisis has brought to realisation the fact that Pakistan needs to explore all energy options. The diversification of the national energy mix is the best defence against a future energy crisis. This diversification needs to include both resources and technologies. There is no denying that fuel cells are going to be an integral part of the future. The question is, will Pakistan be a part of this technology as a producer or as a consumer.

The writer is a Ph.D. candidate. ghayur.adeel@gmail.com

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