Getting to the heart of sustainable power

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Could hydrogen fuel cell technology replace diesel generators at mission critical sites? A cath lab in Israel has already moved to this alternative source of backup power in a bid to improve patient safety

Hospitals could now benefit from a new approach to ensuring resilience in the event of outages, with the use of hydrogen fuel cell technology. Overcoming some of the weaknesses of conventional backup power systems, this technology is claimed to have the potential to deliver significant savings to healthcare providers while improving patient safety. 

GenCell, whose fuel cell technology has been used to power the American and Russian space programmes, has commercialised a system that is capable of providing backup to hospital assets on an indefinite basis. In Israel, this futuristic approach is now taking off, with applications finding their way into the most critical areas of patient care, where loss of power could result in potential harm to patients, during high-risk, complex procedures.

The first installation of its kind was completed at the Hillel Yaffe Medical Centre in Israel, within the cardiac catheterisation unit. The project was executed together with healthcare service provider and GenCell distributor Medtechnica, and included delivery of a hydrogen-based GenCell G5 Long-Duration UPS. 

Preventing even the slightest interruption to power flow eliminates any possibility of damage to delicate equipment, crucially avoiding equipment downtime and interruptions to surgical procedures. The key driver for introducing the G5 solution was to optimise operations in the intensive care coronary unit (ICCU), where long, complex catheterisation procedures involving sophisticated equipment require imaging devices and computer peripherals with high power load demands. 

The hospital sought a fail-safe backup solution that could absorb these short but intense peak loads, by installing the G5 with its fully redundant grid configuration and internal energy bridge feature that delivers dynamic load capacity. 

As a result, Hillel Yaffe has successfully eliminated any concerns that power spikes will interfere with surgical operations. The ICCU now enjoys a smooth and constant flow of electricity, ensuring the highest levels of power reliability. 

Ronen Edry, Hillel Yaffe Medical Centre’s chief engineer, explains: “We are aware that the imaging apparatus we employ can cause power spikes that may initiate a lengthy reboot procedure for its supporting IT equipment. If this were to take place during a catheterisation process, it would delay the surgery by several minutes with potential risk to the patient. This was a key factor in our decision to deploy the G5.”

Edry continues: “The reliability of regular power now enables our staff to carry out medical procedures with full confidence and peace of mind – undoubtedly, this has resulted in better patient care.”

The GenCell G5 is now regulating energy for all the cardio-cath medical operations, reducing patient disruption, improving care and, in extreme conditions, minimising the likelihood of power issues resulting in risk to life. 

Following the success of its initial installation, Hillel Yaffe plans to install additional units to backup other sensitive and critical medical devices and systems. This effectively creates a microgrid within the facility that will increase its independence from the grid and ensure smooth and uninterrupted power for further improvements to patient care across other departments.

Replacing diesel 

According to GenCell president Gil Shavit, the project signifies an important step for medical and other public service institutions seeking to transition to clean energy and render diesel obsolete: the GenCell G5 backup power fuel cell is ideal for hospital applications as it produces no emissions, noise or vibrations, and is suitable for indoor and outdoor use.

The GenCell G5 Long-Duration UPS provides a potentially unlimited source of 5kW backup power for telecomm, healthcare and niche industrial markets

“In most cases, hospital assets are backed up by UPS and battery-operated systems, then the expectation is for diesel generators to kick-in, in the event of an outage,” Shavit says. 

“These diesel generators should be tested at frequent intervals, but there is now increasing pressure to reduce CO2 emissions. This means that there is a drive to minimise the use of diesel gen sets – in the future, they will be taken out of the equation altogether.” 

Shavit continues: “There needs to be a substitute for diesel, for environmental reasons, but conventional batteries are not yet capable of operating for a very long duration and are large consumers of valuable real estate. To provide backup for a 12-hour outage using batteries, for example, a hospital would need to use 10% of its real estate. This is where the hydrogen solution comes in – a 50 litre tank (around the size of a standard oxygen cylinder) can offer backup in an outage yet requires just a few square metres of space; this solution is capable of replacing a large foot-print of batteries.” 

GenCell also points out that battery-based solutions usually provide up to 6-8 hours of electricity although many power failures last longer, especially during extreme weather. The GenCell power solution can provide power as long as hydrogen fuel is available. With just six cylinders, the hydrogen fuel cell technology will deliver more than 15 hours of 5kW backup power.

Unlimited power source

In fact, the long-duration UPS has the potential to provide an unlimited source of backup power – when one hydrogen cylinder runs low, the system can simply swap to another full tank, and empty cylinders can be replaced on a continuous basis. The gas is also easily supplied alongside other medical gases, as part of the hospital’s existing supply chain.

“Hospitals are comfortable with this technology as they are already accustomed to managing a variety of medical gases. They have their own gas security officers that are very well educated in hydrogen safety. They understand that hydrogen is safer than propane and diesel, but it must be kept outside in a designated area,” Shavit comments. 

In fact, hydrogen is 57 times lighter than gasoline vapour and 14 times lighter than air. 

“This means that in the event of a leak, hydrogen rapidly rises into the atmosphere at a speed of 45mph (20m/s) or 2,100 cu ft per minute (60,000 l/min). Rather than pooling to cause an explosion, it quickly dissipates and/or burns,” he says.

Cost of ownership

Shavit points out that the total cost of ownership is lower, when compared with the conventional approach, particularly when the costs of maintaining diesel gensets are taken into consideration. There is no need to manage the quality and replacement of diesel, which is a complex and costly undertaking. 

Furthermore, the GenCell solution has minimal moving parts, redundant internal systems and is highly resilient to extreme temperatures, humidity and air salinity. 

An IOT management system provides remote monitoring as part of an ongoing service provision. 

“This solution can deliver a huge saving to hospitals,” says Shavit “People care about being green until it costs them money. If you want to be green, you also have to show a cost saving to make it a viable investment.” 

He adds that hydrogen fuel cell technology also has the potential to overcome some of the barriers to participation in demand-side response (DSR). Emissions from diesel gensets have proven a hurdle for hospital sites wishing to explore potential revenue generating opportunities through DSR. 

“A diesel generator will take one to two minutes to synchronise to the frequency of the grid. If it is not synchronised it can cause serious problems. However, our system is always in phase and in frequency, so it can kick-in in just one millisecond,” adds Shavit. 

“This approach to DSR is also totally CO2 free.” 

He explains that the long-term strategy is to replace diesel assets one generator at a time, in a staged approach. This way, the hospital can become comfortable with the technology, before rolling it out across the rest of the site. 

As well as working with hospitals, GenCell is also seeing strong demand from utilities for fuel-cell-based solutions, including long-duration backup generators for substations. 

Shavit explains that many utilities are looking to microgrids to solve a variety of challenges, including compliance with environmental legislation, relieving pressure on overworked grids and meeting future energy demands.

Telecoms providers are also turning to hydrogen fuel cells for clean, reliable and cost-efficient power. In 2018, mobile operators across the globe spent 16.5% of their annual opex, on energy. With the introduction of 5G, this financial and environmental burden is expected to double. 

Shavit revealed that GenCell is also setting its sights on large-scale data centre installations in the future. As mass production is ramped up, the cost of having a microgrid system, comprising dozens of units, will come down, making this an affordable and resilient option for the sector.

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