Fuel Cells: Heat and Electricity

A fuel cell is a heating system that uses the functional principle of combined heat and power generation. This means that it generates both power and heat. For this power and heat production, the fuel cell needs oxygen and hydrogen. The latter is obtained from natural gas first and then converted or reformed in the fuel cell itself. Water is produced as a by-product.

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A fuel cell is a device that converts the chemical energy of a fuel (hydrogen, natural gas, methanol, etc.) and an oxidant (air or oxygen) into electricity. In principle, a fuel cell operates like a battery. Unlike a battery however, a fuel cell does not run down or require recharging. It will produce electricity and heat if fuel and an oxidizer are supplied.

Though only just becoming commercially available, fuel cells appear to be ideally suited for use in micro–Combined Heat and Power (CHP) applications in buildings. In these applications 3 to 10kW electricity can be generated by a fuel cell, and the heat produced can be used to heat the building. The ability to utilise the heat greatly increases the efficiency of the fuel cell system and provides greater environmental benefits than electricity generated by centralised fossil fuelled power stations.

Fuel cell systems have an advantage over conventional CHP systems in that their heat to power ratios are lower. Engine-based systems (typically 1.5:1 heat to power) produce more heat than power, which can often lead to ‘heat dumping’ – a particular problem in buildings with low heat demand. Fuel cells have an even 1:1 heat to power ratio.

How a fuel cell works

A fuel cell contains an anode and a cathode with an electrolyte sandwiched between them.

When a hydrogen atom (from the fuel source) is in contact with the negative anode catalyst layer, it splits into a proton and an electron.
The proton passes straight through the electrolyte, whilst
The electron produces electricity as it passes through the external circuit.
The circuit returns the electrons to the positive side of the electrolyte layer, where they bond and join with an oxygen molecule.
Creating water and heat in the positive cathode catalyst layer.

The Viessmann Vitovalor PT2 compact fuel cell heating appliance

The Vitovalor PT2 is the ideal energy centre for the modern detached house. The system combines heat and power generation on a very small footprint. The fuel cell heating system offers considerably higher electrical efficiency than that available through current combined heat and power (CHP) solutions. This reduces the amount of heat extracted and makes the fuel cell heating appliance particularly suitable for use in new build and renovation projects.

System diagram of the Vitovalor PT2

[1] Standard unit with fuel cell module and gas condensing boiler
[2] Tower cylinder
[3] Communication interface
[4] Integrated export meter
[5] Router
[6] Domestic power circuit
[7] Internet
[8] ViCare app
[9] Public grid

How efficient is the Viessmann fuel cell heating system?

When electricity is generated, heat is also produced, which in large, conventional power stations is generally lost as unused waste heat. Fuel cell heating systems such as the Vitovalor on the other hand make use of this waste heat for central and DHW heating. They therefore have a very high level of overall efficiency. Furthermore, there are no losses during energy transfer as the energy is used directly on site. Even the conversion from combustion gas to hydrogen is very efficient due to the absence of intermediate thermomechanical steps. The constant electrical output of the fuel cell module is 0.75 kW. A large part of the electricity demand can thus be covered at any time.

The Vitovalor works even more efficiently in combination with the Vitocharge power storage system. This can store surplus power for times of peak load which considerably increases independence from electricity suppliers. Alternatively, it is quite straightforward to export the surplus power to the public grid. The integral energy manager is self-learning and therefore optimises the level of on-site consumption.

Viessmann Vitovalor PT2 Product Internals

Viessmann Vitovalor PT2 Specifications

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