A Shiny Box of Fuel Cells

This week I completed the last of what RPI requires for a Master of Science degree in Electrical Engineering. Since I’d finished my thesis in the spring, I only needed three more credits to graduate. So I opted for a summer independent study. And what did I independently study? Fuel cells! (From an educator’s perspective.) It just so happened that my supervisor had previously purchased a commercial 300W PEM fuel cell stack. He wanted to use it in some sort of educational demonstration, but wasn’t sure exactly how to make that happen. So my project for the summer was to design and build just such a system. Our goals were to make the system:

  • Instructional for students of all ages
  • Portable and self-contained (no need to ever plug into AC power)
  • Visible (both the components and their connections)
  • Interactive (something you’d like to play with)

With this in mind I put together what I felt was a solid design, then went to work constructing it. With the help of some of my lab mates, we built the following:

Fuel Cell Demo System FrontWhat you see here is a large 80/20 box measuring about 30″ x 20″ x 11″ and covered with acrylic panels. As you probably guessed, the large red tank is the hydrogen supply, pressurized to 2000psi when full. That pressure is regulated down to about 6psi for the fuel cell stack. The gas passes through a ball flow meter and solenoid valve before reaching the fuel cell stack – located just to the left of and behind the red LED panel voltmeter.

Our fuel cell stack is produced by Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies, model H-300 (more details here). It’s an air-breathing PEM-type stack, composed of 72 individual fuel cells strung together in series. The voltage produced by the stack varies from 40-60VDC depending on the amount of current drawn. Now this variation is unsuitable for most electronics, so it’s first passed through a DC-DC converter (the largest black box just to the left of center). The converter takes the varying input voltage and steps it down to about 13VDC for use in the rest of the system.

You may also notice a 12V lead-acid battery strapped into the middle of the demo box. This serves two purposes. First, and most importantly, it provides power to the stack’s control module during startup. This is necessary to open the solenoid valve and engage the three fans mounted to the side of the stack. Second, it provides a bit of buffering during transients (e.g. when all the light bulbs are flipped on). One problem with fuel cells is that they cannot respond quickly to changing loads. Batteries, however, can rapidly supply more or less current without significant changes in voltage (large capacitors also have the same effect).

The rest of the system consists of an array of ten 12V, 13W light bulbs, a 120VAC inverter, and equipment to monitor voltages and current at several points within the system. This equipment is mounted to the rear of the system, shown here:

Fuel Cell Demo System Rear DAQ HardwareThe data acquisition (DAQ) module shown above is produced by National Instruments, model USB-6009, and is capable of monitoring eight analog inputs at 14-bit resolution. These analog inputs are fed from a custom PCB I designed, mounted directly below the DAQ module. This PCB is responsible for measuring currents using ACS712 hall-effect sensor ICs. It also performs voltage division so that the system’s voltages are within the measurement range of the DAQ. Last but not least, the PCB allows for computer control of the ten light bulbs using MOSFETs controlled by the DAQ’s digital outputs.

From the start, I knew I wanted to use LabVIEW to monitor and control the system – it’s built for data acquisition and handles simple controls quite well. The only question was, what sort of hardware should I run it with? Since I didn’t need much horesepower and in fact was looking to minimize electrical power consumption, I went with the Asus Eee PC, model 1001PX:

Asus Eee PC 1001PXWith its dual-core Atom processor, the 1001PX actually performs quite well running Windows XP. Its 20-30W power consumption (when charging) is equally impressive. Running LabVIEW 2009 presented no performance problems whatsoever. My only qualm is the lack of screen resolution – 1024 x 600 is just a bit tight most of the time. However, space was no issue since all of my LabVIEW VIs were compiled into executables without scrollbars, menubars, etc. Here’s how the main panel turned out:

LabVIEW Front Panel

From this panel the user can monitor voltage, current, and power at different points throughout the system. The light bulbs can be turned on and off with a single mouse click. I’ve also created VIs for taking polarization curves (voltage vs. current density) and for monitoring the stack’s voltage at high speed (48kHz) during transients. To top it all off, the Eee is loaded with a sample presentation containing the principles of operation for fuel cells as well as diagrams for the demo system itself.

The system has yet to be tested in a real classroom environment. Sadly, I may not be around to see that happen. But I’m pretty confident that it’ll be put to good use. The grand total for all parts in the system? About $4000. Thanks for reading!

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