Are Fuel Cell Generators the Future for RVs?July 6, 2020
Fuel Cell generators – you may have heard of them.
This age-old technology has had some interesting developments in the RV world. Quiet, and offering clean emissions, fuel cells would be a game changer.
Most Recreational vehicles currently come with internal combustion engines.
Noisy and smelly, these gas-chugging generators can disrupt your whole experience. They pollute the environment we love so much, and most produce an ear-splitting racket. The smell of their exhaust fumes can ruin any meal.
As we step past the middle of 2020, it’s time to take another look at Fuel Cell generators as a reliable alternative.
What exactly is a fuel cell generator?
Fuel cell generators use chemical reactions to generate electricity.
These devices offer clean electricity, with very low emissions. Because they host no moving parts as part of their intrinsic design, they boast a quiet sound profile. Portable options for fuel cells are currently in development, and becoming more viable every day.
Invented in 1839 by Sir William Grove, how a fuel cell works is a simple concept.
Fuel goes into the fuel cell. A catalyst causes it to undergo oxidation reactions that generates ions and electrons. These move through the various parts of the fuel cell. Electrons divert through an external circuit before rejoining, producing direct current electricity. An inverter is then attached to convert the power to AC.
The ions and electrons then combine with oxygen to produce water and some minor waste heat and elements.
So are fuel cells just big batteries?
To put it simply, no.
It’s true – Both use chemical reactions in the manipulation of electricity. But it’s important to discern the difference between a fuel cell and a battery.
– They both use chemical reactions, but they have differing functions.
– Batteries STORE energy through chemical reactions.
– Fuel cells GENERATE electricity through chemical reactions.
– With a fuel cell, all you need do is add fuel to generate electricity.
So, to put it another way: A battery once drained needs to recharge. A fuel cell generator just needs more fuel.
Now – as we said before, fuel cells are not a new concept. They’ve been around in one form or another for over 150 years. There have been developments in recent years, though.
WATT Fuel Cell Corporation, founded in 2010, started out developing Solid Oxide Fuel Cell systems. In 2014, the company acquired veteran fuel cell developer Pittsburgh Electric Engines Inc. in 2014. Together, they expanded operations to include manufacturing their fuel cells.
In 2018, WATT sent out commercial shipments of their Imperium SOFC system. The Imperium uses propane in conjunction with solar energy to generate power. It promises to provide clean power on demand.
These shipments were marked for integration into consumer products. They went to Erwin Hymer Group North America Inc, in Cambridge, Ontario. These shipments came after EHGNA ran a pilot with the Imperium on board one of their latest models.
EHGNA is a leading manufacturer of class B motorhomes in North America. The test pilot took place aboard their E-trek autonomous vehicle, a self-driving RV. This vehicle received approval for testing in Canada in 2017.
Not much has been heard since – but with a self-driving RV, they have to tread carefully.
What’s wrong with internal combustion generators
Combustion engines for Rvs are a tried and true combination. They’re cheap, you can get the fuel almost anywhere, and getting them serviced is easy. We can’t deny it, they have their advantages.
But they certainly have their drawbacks too:
- They pollute. It’s the nature of the beast, and there’s no way around it – combustion generators are bad for the environment. They may often be cheaper, but that comes at a cost to the planet.
- They smell. Nothing is worse than setting up your grill and getting some burgers going – only to have the experience ruined by the smell of exhaust fumes.
- They’re noisy. Your average RV internal combustion generator runs around 70-80 dBA, or about as loud as someone shouting at 3 feet away from you.
These are some steep drawbacks for the RV lifestyle. After all, we’re all here because we love going out into the environment and becoming one with nature.
Not to mention – you don’t want to ruin the experience for others at the campground. Many campgrounds enforce quiet hours when you aren’t allowed to run noisy generators.
Luckily, fuel cells are providing an alternative.
Advantages to Fuel Cell over gasoline or diesel generators
When choosing between the two, Fuel Cell generators hold several distinct advantages:
- Clean energy. Most fuel cells only produce water, electricity, and a little waste heat as their emissions. Some systems do produce a little carbon dioxide, but far less than that produced by combustion generator.
- Efficiency. Internal combustion generators contain many moving parts that reduce their efficiency. Fuel cell generators use chemical reactions with no moving parts, providing a simpler and more efficient system.
- Quiet. Because of their nature, most fuel cells produce minimal or no sound.
- Popular area of research. While they are an old technology, new developments constantly being made are in the Fuel Cell world.
As we move into the middle of 2020, concern for the environment is at an all-time high. For those of us with a love of the recreational vehicle life, alternatives have been few.
Fuel cell generators are one way we can address those concerns without giving up our favorite hobby.
They are more efficient, lightweight, and produce minimal sound. With a fuel cell generator, we can ensure that once we arrive at the campground, zen mode is on. Be sure to stay updated on the best RV generators here because there will be some fuel cell generators listed on the site in the future.
Disadvantages to fuel cell generators
While they certainly do hold their advantages, fuel cells aren’t perfect. For right now, the most limiting factors seem to be cost and availability.
One of the systems we looked at, the EFOY Comfort, only seemed to be available in Europe. The EFOY Comfort seems like a great system, and runs off a liquid methanol mixture.
Even if you managed to get your hands on one in North America – you need fuel, and theirs is proprietary. Additionally, they can only be serviced in one place – Germany.
Now, they do say that you should be able to buy the fuel cartridges at their marine dealer. North America does have some of those. They’re all near the coast, though – which won’t help you much if you’re stuck in the Rockies.
We honestly believe fuel cell generators are the future of Rvs. Boasting clean energy, this efficient technology is undergoing a revolution. Companies and Universities around the world are working hard to develop new, ever cleaner and ever more efficient fuel cells.
As of 2019, there are several current fuel cell bus projects ongoing in the United States. We believe that as this technology continues to gain domestic use, it will become even cheaper and more available for RV power systems.
While prices are still high, the current features boasted are right up our alley – minimal noise and emissions, and in a reasonable size. Further research in the field promises to drive down the price.
As the price drops, the availability of these portable fuel cells will continue to rise. We look forward to bringing these safe, clean technologies with us to our favorite campground.