Environmental Impact of Fuel Cell Power Generation Systems

EPA Grant Number: R828737C001
Subproject: this is subproject number 001 , established and managed by the Center Director under grant R830420
(EPA does not fund or establish subprojects; EPA awards and manages the overall grant for this center).

Center: Center for Environmental and Energy Research (CEER)
Center Director: Earl, David A.
Title: Environmental Impact of Fuel Cell Power Generation Systems
Investigators: Wang, Xingwu , Min, Bigang , Duan, Huihui , Hawley, Jennifer
Institution: Alfred University
EPA Project Officer: Klieforth, Barbara I
Project Period: September 1, 2000 through August 31, 2002
RFA: Targeted Research Center (2000) Recipients Lists
Research Category: Targeted Research


The purpose of this study was to compare three unique fuel processor designs under the paradigm of industrial ecology. The fuel processor is viewed here as part of an alternative power generation system including three parts: fuel processor, fuel cell, and power conditioner. Three designs were compared utilizing two different methods and an evaluation was made regarding each design in three specific impact areas: environmental impact, economic impact, and methane retail resale cost. This comparison technique allowed determination of which design would minimize negative impact on the environment during its production; which design would be the most economical to produce; and which design would be the greatest producer of methane for retail resale were this to be a commercial product.


A fuel cell power generation system consists of more than just the fuel cell. Other components are associated and may include a fuel processor and a power conditioner/inverter. Some of the components associated with a fuel cell power generation system will be briefly described to visualize the potential environmental and economic impact of each component.

The fuel processor is the first step of the conversion of fuel into an electrical current. A fuel processor utilizes a combination of steam reforming (SR) and partial oxidation (POX) methods to convert hydrocarbons (methane, natural gas) into the pure hydrogen necessary as input to the fuel processor. During this process the fuel processor should also strip the input gas of its pollutants such as carbon and carbon monoxide. The fuel processor is one of the areas in which the greatest environmental threat can occur because of this.

There are a number of other considerations to be taken into account when examining the fuel cell power generation system. There are numerous other ‘lesser’ components vital to the control and monitoring of the processor. The three fuel processors compared in this study, with some minor differences, share most of these components. Some of these lesser components include several printed circuit boards (PCBs), at least one programmable logic controller (PLC), valves, compressors, fans, blowers, thermocouples, transducers, LEDs, pumps and relays. While these components will not be described in greater detail, their manufacture and existence in the processor is taken into consideration for the life cycle assessment.

Taking all aspects of the power generator system, a life cycle assessment was undertaken to investigate which of three designs would be the most environmentally sound, economically feasible, and would yield the most from methane sale. Specifically, the study consisted of:

  • Fuel Processor
  • Processor components (ATR, Shift Converter…)
  • Materials used
  • Outputs and emissions
  • Product demise

Three designs were reviewed. The initial design was taken ‘as is’ when the unit was received by Alfred University. Design 2 refines the system by adding a pre-combustion chamber to reduce start-up time and reduce the amount of catalyst needed to have an effective reaction. Design 3 sees the addition of a hydrogen purifier to further increase the purity of the gas input to the fuel cell.

Each addition enhances the system to make it more efficient. However, some components have negative environmental impacts associated with them. Also, the addition of more expensive parts makes the system less economically sound.

A Life Cycle Analysis was preformed to determine which design is the most desirable. Energy use, materials used in the system, and negative environmental impact were all considered.

  • Design 1: Unit ‘as-received’
  • Design 2: Unit + precombustion chamber
  • Design 3: Unit + precombustion chamber + hydrogen purifier

Expected Results:

Three environmental impact considerations were taken for each design. These include conventional pollutants, global warming potential, and hazardous waste. Economic considerations covered material cost, gas resale value, and system efficiency.

Design 2 was shown to be most desireable in regard to environmental impacts in that it does not produce the most pollution and it has the least hazardous waste generation associated with it.

With regard to the economic consequences of the three designs, Design 2 also is the most desirable. Designs 1 and 3 both have lesser hydrogen output per methane input. Also, while Design 2 produces slightly more pollution than the first design, the output of the system is overall more efficient.

A fuel processor power generation system consists of many components. Each may have significant environmental impact and these effects must be considered during the design of the unit. Various changes to the fuel processor system discussed here changed the environmental and economic effects of the system as a whole.

Relevant Websites:

http://ceer.alfred.edu Exit

Publications and Presentations:

Publications have been submitted on this subproject: View all 1 publications for this subprojectView all 34 publications for this center

Supplemental Keywords:

fuel processor design, industrial ecology, alternative power generation, environmental impact, economic impact, methane resale, fuel cell, steam reforming, partial oxidation., RFA, Scientific Discipline, Sustainable Industry/Business, Environmental Chemistry, Sustainable Environment, Technology for Sustainable Environment, Environmental Engineering, environmentally friendly fuel cell power system, environmental sustainability, hydrocarbon conversion, alternative materials, alternative energy source, pollution prevention, fuel cell power generation

Progress and Final Reports:

  • 2001
  • Final Report

  • Main Center Abstract and Reports:

    R830420    Center for Environmental and Energy Research (CEER)

    Subprojects under this Center: (EPA does not fund or establish subprojects; EPA awards and manages the overall grant for this center).
    R828737C001 Environmental Impact of Fuel Cell Power Generation Systems
    R828737C002 Regional Economic and Material Flows
    R828737C003 Visualizing Growth and Sustainability of Water Resources
    R828737C004 Vibratory Residual Stress Relief and Modifications in Metals to Conserve Resources and Prevent Pollution
    R828737C005 Detecting and Quantifying the Evolution of Hazardous Air Pollutants Produced During High Temperature Manufacturing: A Focus on Batching of Nitrate Containing Glasses
    R828737C006 Sulfate and Nitrate Dynamics in the Canacadea Watershed
    R828737C007 Variations in Subsurface Denitrifying and Sulfate-Reducing Microbial Populations as a Result of Acid Precipitation
    R828737C008 Recycling Glass-Reinforced Thermoset Polymer Composite Materials
    R828737C009 Correlating Clay Mineralogy with Performance: Reducing Manufacturing Waste Through Improved Understanding
    R830420C001 Accelerated Hydrogen Diffusion Through Glass Microspheres: An Enabling Technology for a Hydrogen Economy
    R830420C002 Utilization of Paper Mill Waste in Ceramic Products
    R830420C003 Development of Passive Humidity-Control Materials
    R830420C004 Microarray System for Contaminated Water Analysis
    R830420C005 Material and Environmental Sustainability in Ceramic Processing
    R830420C006 Interaction of Sealing Glasses with Metallic Interconnects in Solid Oxide and Polymer Fuel Cells
    R830420C007 Preparation of Ceramic Glaze Waste for Recycling using Froth Flotation
    R830420C008 Elimination of Lead from Ceramic Glazes by Refractive Index Tailoring
    R830420C010 Nanostructured C6B: A Novel Boron Rich Carbon for H2 Storage