Fuel cells for RVs

Fuel cells for RVs provide electricity cleanly and silently. Their high price is still hindering acceptance but that may well change as new types are being developed. Most use hydrogen derived indirectly from methanol. They charge batteries – enabling them to provide far higher short-term power than the fuel cell can instantly supply.

Efoy fuel cell in a camper trailer. Pic: SFC.

Fuel cells for RVs – how fuel cells work

Fuel cells convert chemical energy into electrical energy without burning the fuel. Instead, they use cells that contain anodes and cathodes plus an electrolyte solution. Electrons flow from anode to the cathode. As they do so, they produce electrical direct current (DC). A so-called catalyst oxidise the fuel. That fuel is typically hydrogen and currently derived from the hydrogen-rich methanol. The only emissions are a little ultra-pure water and minor heat plus (for those methanol fuelled) a very small amount of CO2. That hydrogen can, however, be obtained indirectly from solar modules – by breaking down water into hydrogen and oxygen. The fuel cell then also acts much like a battery but is totally non-toxic.

Fuel cells for RVs – brief history

Whilst invented as far back as 1839, the fuel concept was pursued until the early 1950s. NASA then produced as a safe ultra-reliable power source for space missions. A later market was covert military and other surveillance where its silent operation was invaluable.

The very first fuel cell (for boats and RVs) surfaced in August 2004. It was developed by the Smart Fuel Cell (SFC) company and named the EFOY. There are three models. All use methanol fuel. Outputs are from 80 to 210 amp hours a day. They are usually used with a small battery bank. This enables them to provide much higher power for short periods, e.g, for a microwave oven. SFC also produce a Pro range for military and other heavy-duty use.

The very first RV fuel cell. Pix: SFC.

Another fuel cell is the Hydromax. Developed by Dynad (Netherlands) for boats and RVs, its fuel is malic acid (found in acidic fruit such as apples) and a saline solution dried to powder form. When used it is mixed with fresh water.

Apple-powered! – the Hydromax 150. Pic: Dynad.

Another interesting concept is from Mercedes. The company has produced a hydrogen fuel-cell powered RV that in camp, can provide sufficient grid power to run heating, air conditioning and a refrigerator.

A very promising fuel cell was developed by Truma. A huge amount of time and money was invested between 2004 and 2012. The so-called Truma Vega unit finally launched in 2012. It was diesel-powered and worked well. Sadly, its price (plus 12000 Euro) proved far too high for commercial success. Production ceased in early 2014.

Fuel cells for RVs – the future

There is a huge potential market for this type of fuel cell. It is needed also to provide power in villages in third-world countries. Most currently run on methanol – but that needs to be of exceptionally high quality. The fuel is priced accordingly. The most probable solution is likely to that solar electricity/hydrogen combination mentioned above.

Fuel cells for RVs – the risks

The methanol fuel cells produced so far present no more risk than any from any other fossil-based fuel. That fuel is converted into hydrogen within the cell but of tiny quantity that it presents no known risks. The Mercedes concept uses hydrogen directly but not enough is currently known about the vehicle to comment.

Fuel cells for RVs – read more

Fuel cells for RVs are covered in my books Solar That Really Works!, and Caravan & Motorhome Electrics. Digital versions can be purchased from our Book Shop. Print versions can be bought from almost all bookshops in Australia and New Zealand. Also on-line from booktopia.com.au/