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Fuel cells offer hope

Hoping to push Thailand towards a new hydrogen economy, the National Science and Technology development Agency (NSTDA) has collaborated with the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) of Taiwan to conduct a joint research project to develop fuel-cell technology.

Fuel cells offer hope

Fuel cells are an electrochemical device that convert hydrogen and oxygen into water, and in the process they can produce electricity.

As it is clean and utilises hydrogen as a raw material, this kind of energy is expected to play an important role as an alternative energy source that will replace fossil fuels in the future.

Under the plan, the National Metal and Materials Technology Centre (Mtec), a research institute under NSTDA, will be host to a co-research project to develop a proton exchange membrane fuel cell known as PEMFC.

PEMFC is a type of fuel cell featuring lower temperature and pressure ranges and is suitable for use in transport applications as well as for stationary and portable applications.

NSTDA's president Sakarindr Bhumiratana said the project was set for a five-year period with the hope of building a prototype fuel-cell stack to generate 10 kilowatts of electricity as a portable alternative energy source for electric home appliances and vehicles.

He said that as ITRI had expertise in this technology, the collaboration would help transfer valuable knowledge to local researchers.

The project was also hoped to eventually come out not only with a prototype fuel-cell stack but also many people qualified in the area.

Thiraphat Vilaithong, president of Thai Physics Society and also the project's coordinator, said that Mtec would also initially work with Chiang Mai University, Mahidol University, Chulalongkorn University and King Mongkut University of Technology Thon Buri to develop the proton membrane exchange fuel cell.

The development of fuel cells is important, especially when the world faces an oil-price crisis. Many countries have moved towards the development of this technology.

As this technology is environmentally friendly, offering zero emissions and using hydrogen - which is easily found in Thailand - as a key raw material, it's another important development area that the country has to move on.

Thirapat said the cost of using fuel cells to produce electricity was still expensive at around Bt40 per watt, compared to fuel oil which cost only Bt10 per watt. The project was also aimed at local development of fuel cells for practical use at a reduced cost per watt.

Under the plan, the project will come out with a prototype three-kilowatt proton exchange membrane fuel-cell stack in the first two years.

At this size, Thiraphat said it could be used to produce electricity for home electrical appliances.

The plan is also to develop the fuel-cell stack to generate five kilowatts in the third year and then 10 kilowatts in the following five years.

"The 10-kilowatt fuel cell could be used for large-scale home electric appliances like airconditioners, or power a compact vehicle, replacing fuel oil," he said.

With local development, he said it is expected that the cost per watt could be reduced to Bt20 in the next five years.

Thiraphat also predicts that the cost of fuel cells will come down to equal the use of fuel oil to produce electricity by 2015.

He said Thailand should begin to use fuel-cell technology as an alternative energy source for portable electricity generators by the end of 2010.

Pongpen Sutharoj

The Nation

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