Fuel-cell-powered lighting

Engineers at Sandia National Laboratories are leading an effort to develop commercially viable, fuel-cell-powered mobile lighting systems.

Sandia National Laboratories is leading an effort to develop commercially viable, fuel-cell-powered mobile lighting systems, typically used by highway construction crews and airport maintenance personnel.

To that end, engineers at Sandia are working with several manufacturers – Multiquip, Altergy Systems, Luxim, Lumenworks and Stray Light – with the aim of bringing fuel-cell technology into more widespread commercial use, particularly in general construction and aviation maintenance applications.

Sandia project leader Lennie Klebanoff’s team is overseeing the production of one such mobile lighting unit that consists of light-emitting plasma technology from Luxim, Lumenworks and Stray Light, two high-pressure hydrogen tanks and a fuel cell provided and installed by Altergy Systems. Multiquip and Altergy are assembling the overall unit, which will be able to operate for 30-40 hours continuously.

The project has already attracted the interest of San Francisco International Airport, a long-time partner with Sandia on various homeland security projects. San Francisco International Airport would like to test the system for use in night-time runway repair work, as well as in its terminal renovation activities.

Aircraft giant Boeing has also funded Sandia to develop a technically more ambitious version of the system that uses metal hydride storage tanks designed by Ovonic Hydrogen Systems. These tanks store 12kg of hydrogen and would provide enough energy to ensure that the system would be able to operate for up to 90 hours.

Metal hydride storage is also appealing since it removes many of the safety concerns found with the high pressure on the earlier unit, whose tanks hold hydrogen at 5,000psi compared to 250psi with the metal hydride tank system.

Traditionally, mobile lighting units are powered by diesel fuel generators that produce CO2, NOx and soot, making them less than ideal for the environment. In addition, diesel units are noisy, which creates a safety hazard when construction personnel are distracted and cannot hear oncoming traffic. A fuel cell running on pure hydrogen, on the other hand, is both very quiet and a zero-emission electric power source.

Klebanoff estimates that each deployed fuel-cell-based mobile light would avoid the burning of nearly 900 gallons of diesel fuel per year and eliminate the emission of NOx and soot. If the hydrogen used is generated from non-fossil-fuel sources, then each mobile light unit would also reduce CO2 emissions by about nine metric tons per year.