A Working Fuel Cell PrototypeCredit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Fuel_cell_NASA_p48600ac.jpg

Fuel cells aren't just the dreams of science-fiction writers.  There are becoming and more and prevalent in the real world too.  Technology, telecom, hospitals, business parks – they're popping up everywhere!  But what are fuel cells and why are they becoming so important to our everyday life?  Why should we back research for the development of this up-and-coming power source? 

Here are some frequently asked questions and answers to help you understand fuel cells: 

What are fuel cells?

Fuel cells are devices that use the chemical reaction between oxygen and an oxidizing agent (usually hydrocarbons like hydrogen or methanol) to make electricity. 

Diagram of a fuel cellCredit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:PEM_fuelcell.svg


How do fuel cells work?

A fuel cell consists of two electrodes, an anode and a cathode, that are wrapped around an electrolyte to allow electrons to easily transfer between them.  The oxygen and oxidizing agents are passed across the top of the electrodes.  Electrons from the hydrocarbon are drawn from the anode to the cathode, resulting in a steady direct current electrical charge.  The only by-product of this reaction is a small amount of water and heat, making this one of the most efficient and green energy sources out there.

How much electricity can a fuel cell make?

Individual "cells" make a very small amount of electricity but if they are placed in series and parallel, the voltage and current increases.  This allows you to customize and upgrade the setup as electrical needs / loads increase.

How efficient are fuel cells?

With the current technology, the efficiency of fuel cells is between 40 and 60%, depending on the material used.  This can be increased as far as 85% if the resulting heat and water are captured for reuse. 

How is a fuel cell different from a battery?

While the power output of a battery is also based on a chemical reaction, it holds only a certain amount of "fuel".  Because of that, batteries will eventually run out and stop working. 

Fuel cells are not designed to be "thrown out" like batteries.  Fuel cells require a constant flow of fuel – both oxygen and hydrocarbon to keep working.  This means that you always have a steady supply of electricity without having to worry about recharging it or the device "giving up the ghost" at the most inopportune times. 

Diagram of a fuel cell in a carCredit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Fuelcell.jpg

What are some of the possible uses of fuel cells?

  • Considering that they are small and versatile, fuel cells can be used almost anywhere.  The most talked about is in the automotive industry, where automakers are striving to be the first to offer a hydrogen-fueled car to the public. 

  • Fuel cells aren't just for cars!  They can be used in forklifts, scooters, trains, busses, and anywhere else where dependable power is required.

  • These could also be used to provide endless power to businesses and houses that are difficult to get regular power lines to. 

  • Fuel cells could provide backup power to businesses, hospital, emergency responders, and computer systems.

  • Portable version could power vending machines, road signs, cell phones, laptops – the list goes on and on!

Why should we push for more fuel cell research? 

  • The fuel required to run fuel cells are very common in our world.

  • Fuel cells create very little waste or pollution, unlike our current oil-burning cars and electrical plants.

  • Fuel cell's byproduct – heat and clean water – can be captured and recycled to produce more electricity (aka – cogeneration)

  • Fuel cells run silently – no noise pollution to speak of!

  • Banks of fuel cells can be integrated easily into our existing infrastructure.  They use the same power lines to distribute the electricity and can even work side-by-side with their polluting brothers (aka – coal-burning power plants). 

  • Fuel cells can help us improve our current power efficiency up to 85% over what we get now from more traditional fuels (oil, coal, etc.)

Hydrogen fueling stationCredit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hydrogen_vehicle.jpg

What are some of the disadvantages of fuel cells?

  • Fuel - It can take more power than it's worth to produce pure, unbound hydrogen (for example – get the H out of the H2O).  That's why scientists are currently working on finding other substances that can be used in fuel cells.

  • Cost – Since fuel cells are a new technology, many of the pieces that go into their construction can be extremely costly.  Experts estimate that to make fuel cell systems competitive, they must cost under $35 per kilowatt to build and run.  We are nowhere near this.  Once again, scientists must work to find other material alternatives to bring fuel cells into a more affordable arena.

  • Durability – Some fuel cells degrade faster if they are turn on and off often or have to deal with really high temperatures, requiring them to be replaced sooner.  This can be resolved with more material research. 

  • Infrastructure – Since fuel cells require a constant supply of fuel, we must build the infrastructure needed to deliver it.  This includes hydrogen / hydrocarbon generation plants, storage, pipelines, delivery trucks, etc, etc,