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Microsoft and Toyota rev up interest in fuel-cell tech

Toyota Mirai fuel-cell car
Toyota’s Mirai fuel-cell sedan runs on hydrogen. (Toyota Photo)

Grid battery storage projects like Tesla’s 100-megawatt installation in Australia may be getting lots of press, but behind the scenes, hydrogen fuel-cell systems are carving out a niche in applications ranging from non-polluting motor vehicles to power-gobbling data centers.

“It’s not either-or,” said Sunita Satyapal, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fuel Cell Technology Office. “We definitely need battery electric vehicles, we need advanced combustion, biofuels — really, all of the above. But what’s unique about hydrogen is its versatility.”

Satyapal and some prominent users of fuel-cell systems, including executives from Microsoft and Toyota, discussed the state of the art in Seattle today during the CleanTech Innovation Showcase, presented by CleanTech Alliance.

Fuel cells generate energy through a straightforward chemical reaction: Stored hydrogen is combined with oxygen from the air with the aid of a catalyst, producing electricity. The devices are about twice as efficient as internal combustion engineswhen it comes to converting chemical energy into power, and the only emissions they produce are air and water vapor.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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