New fuel cell prototype could power rural ITS applications

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Intelligent transportation systems (ITS) technologies can be used to enhance transportation safety and mobility, but the sensors and communications equipment needed for ITS applications typically require access to electricity. In rural areas, limited access to the power grid can make it challenging to implement ITS devices. 


In addition to powering ITS devices, the fuel cells could provide power for rural intersection roadway lighting. Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/36521983488@N01/175482261/ Current solutions for providing power to off-grid locations include battery packs or diesel generators, both of which require constant maintenance to recharge, refuel, or replace. Other alternatives include solar panels and wind turbines, but cost and performance concerns have limited their use.

“One of the issues with these green power alternatives, such as solar panels, is dependability… especially in the long, cold, and dark Minnesota winters,” says Victor Lund, a traffic engineer with St. Louis County Public Works. Until this technology matures, there is a need for other options that can provide confidence in generating power, Lund says.

To provide a more effective and dependable power alternative, researchers from the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) have developed a portable prototype system that uses hydrogen-based fuel cells to generate electricity. The UMD research team was led by chemical engineering associate professor Steven Sternberg, and the project was sponsored by the ITS Institute.

The hydrogen-based fuel cell provides a clean, compact, high-efficiency energy source for an accompanying battery pack, which could be used to operate various ITS devices. The prototype is completely independent of the power grid, works well in cold weather, and requires maintenance only once each week for recharging. The cost of the system is about $7,500, with an additional operating cost of $2,000 per year for fuel materials.

Potential applications include powering variable message signs, dedicated short-range communication technologies, and warning blinkers on traffic signs. According to Lund, the system’s applications extend beyond powering ITS devices. For instance, the fuel cells could be used for rural intersection roadway lighting or as a back-up source for traffic signals in case of a power outage.