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Prototype for fuel cells

For the first time in Thailand a group of local researchers has developed a prototype electric vehicle that uses the latest fuel-cell technology.

Published on July 9, 2007

A research team from the Electromagnetic Compatibility Lab at King Mongkut's Institute of Technology at Lad Krabang (KMITL) has worked with the National Metal and Materials Technology Centre and Sirindhorn International Institute of Technology to develop the country's first fuel-cell electric vehicle with zero emissions.

With no use of fuel oil or batteries to store electric power, the new vehicle can generate its own power directly from fuel cells, said KMITL's vice president Weerachet Khanngern, who leads the development project.

A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that converts hydrogen and oxygen into water, and in the process it produces electricity. As it is clean and utilises hydrogen as a source, this kind of energy is expected to play an important role as an alternative energy that will replace fossil fuels in the future.

Hoping to develop a vehicle which is environmental friendly, Weerachet said the team adopted fuel-cell technology as a key power source for the vehicle. They modified a motorcycle-shaped electric vehicle and designed a fuel-cell system to generate power to drive it.

The fuel-cell technology used by the vehicle is based on a proton exchange membrane fuel cell, known as PEMFC. As this type of fuel cell features lower temperature and pressure ranges, it's suitable for use in transport applications as well as for stationary and portable applications.

Weerachet said the team designed the entire fuel-cell system used by the electric vehicle. Instead of using electric power from batteries, once the vehicle was started, the fuel cell also started working to generate electric power to drive the vehicle's motor.

Hydrogen from a tank is added to the fuel cell's stack while oxygen from the air is blown inside, Weerachet explained. Once the hydrogen and oxygen meet in the stack, the proton exchange membrane helps transform the chemical energy liberated during the reaction of hydrogen and oxygen into electrical energy to drive the motor.

The combined flow rates of the hydrogen and oxygen are a key factor to make the fuel cell generate enough power. Weerachet said this was something the team had to research to find a proper combination.

The team designed the stack with 40 membrane cells, which can generate 500 watts of electrical power. At this rate, it's enough to drive the vehicle, which has a speed of 30 kilometres per hour.

Weerachet said the team completed the development of the prototype earlier this month. It's an upgrade from the first version, which came out late last year.

While the first version uses super capacity, a kind of power storage to store electrical power generated from fuel cells as a power source, the second model uses electrical power generated purely from hydrogen and oxygen with no need for a battery. The power will be generated in real time when driving the vehicle, Weerachet said.

"In the second version, we hope to demonstrate a way to use electrical power from fuel cells with no power storage so that we can make the vehicle much lighter when it comes to practical use," he added.

Fuel cells are hoped to be a key alternative energy source in the future.

Many countries are putting a greater focus on the development of fuel-cell technology as they believe the world will eventually move towards a new hydrogen economy where fuel cells will play an important role in many aspects of industry.

This local development, Weerachet said, was also hoped to build a foundation for further development of fuel-cell technology in the country.

He also called for the establishment of a national research institution on fuel cells to develop the technology for commercial use. "Fuel cells are a new technology that many countries are moving to. If we ignore the trend, we may lose opportunities to jump into the new hydrogen economy," he said.

Pongpen Sutharoj

The Nation

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