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Fuel Cells

A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that converts fuel on the anode side and an oxidant on the cathode side; it does this without the need to burn the fuel making them far more efficient. The fuel cell outputs the electricity through the use of an electrolyte solution and can remain functional as long as the flow of fuel and oxidants are constant. The fuel cell was initially invented and demonstrated as early as 1839 by Sir William Grove as an alternative to conventional energy sources. A feasible working fuel cell wasn’t established until the 1960s by NASA in the space program.

Fuel Cell History

The first fuel cells were used in NASA space missions as they contained a lower weight to power ratio and lowered the weight of a space craft. The fuel cells provided the power necessary for operating the space craft using small amounts of fuel, hydrogen, instead of using chemical propellants and stored electricity like that in batteries. Batteries have a limited usage where a fuel cell can keep operating as long as there is a fuel source which is much more advantageous. The fuel cells provided heating, power to the computers, energy for the space craft to move, in the form of hydrogen, and basic lighting in the craft.

  • The Smithsonian Institute’s history of fuel cells.
  • Fuel cells in today’s economy.
  • Fuel Cell basics on fuel cell use and technology.

Comparisons of Fuel Cells to Fossil Fuels

Fuel cells are not cost effective for the common use in cars and vehicles but have been highly effective in the space and power generation programs for hospitals, universities, and large manufacturing facilities. The use of fuel cells as an internal combustion engine is economically unfeasible due to the need to add energy to water or existing hydrocarbon fuel sources such as methane or gasoline. Commonly confused with the hydrogen internal combustion engine is the electrical fuel cell demonstrated above. The electric fuel cell to be used in vehicles will not be commercially viable for the masses until sometime after 2020, and will use electricity, not internal combustion, to power vehicles. In the meantime, some who are concerned about the environment may be willing to purchase a hybrid vehicle or more efficient cleaner burning auto and donate a motorhome or high value vessel to help a favorite charity. The internal combustion use of hydrogen and the fuel cell still creates pollution and needs to be developed further before its use will be implemented.

Fuel cells offer an alternative to fossil fuel sources with many benefits such as higher efficiency in electrical production, lower emissions of carbon and hydrocarbons, and the use of the most abundant form of energy in the universe, hydrogen. Fuel cells, when compared to fossil fuel use for creating electricity, produce a fraction of the pollution and greenhouse gases, if any, and can have its fuel extracted from water, the air and existing fuel sources such as gasoline and methane. The extraction form existing fuel sources allows for industry to slowly change from fossil fuel based to hydrogen and fuel cell based without the need for massive layoffs and company failures. Fuel cells aim to provide better power sources while keeping existing jobs and professions alive.

Commercial Manufacturers of Fuel Cells

There are many commercial manufacturers of fuel cells in today’s market, and while most applications of their products are for industrial and scientific use, such as the space program, great strides and progress are being made in the commercial application of fuel cells to home and personal use. The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy has rated fuel cell manufacturers and their products according to their various uses. The first viable home use fuel cells were released in the early 2000s are part of a system of solar panels and electrical generation for homes. The solar panels use electrolysis to extract hydrogen from water to be used in fuel cells for electrical generation at night. Companies such as H Power Corp and Johnson Matthey have working commercial and residential fuel cells and companies like Fuel Cell Energy have developed commercial uses in hospital power and power plant electrical generation.

Fuel Cells in Cars and Vessels

Phosphoric acid fuel cells were the first fuel cells developed and used in the 1960s. They use phosphoric acid as the electrolyte for electrical conversion and have a higher cost when used in vehicles. This is due to all of the hydrogen needing to stay on board and hydrogen has a low energy density when compared to existing fuels like gasoline or methanol. The hydrogen fuel cells intended for use in cars is a polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cell and has a lower heat exchange and use only hydrogen and oxygen form the air. It should be noted that although the vehicle fuel cell gains more power and gives off less heat that they require noble metals to act as a catalyst which increases the initial costs of ownership and operation.

The advantages of using fuel cells in automobiles is the severe reduction of contaminants and pollution caused by internal combustion engines. Fuel cells, when used as a source of electricity for electric cars, emits only heat and water vapor, but when used as part of an internal combustion engine the released gases are still pollutants, just not as severe. Disadvantages include no fueling stations currently being operated, or too few to make the hydrogen fuel cell feasible, the cost of operation and manufacturing are too high at the moment to make it economically viable and the blocking of the technology by companies who stand to lose profits from the use of fuel cells. Fuel cell use will become an integrated part of the transportation in the next few years as the technology is perfected. In terms of implementing a greener transportation system, it might be too idealistic to advise commercial manufactures to take part in fuel cell vehicle donation throughout the United States.

Molten Carbonate

In industrial applications molten carbonate is being used as it presents better efficiency and the use of non-precious metals as cathodes and anodes due to its high operating temperature. The electrolyte is made up of a molten carbonate slat mixture placed in a porous chemically inert ceramic lithium aluminum oxide. The use of non-precious metals allows the costs to be decreased tremendously. These fuel cells do not require the use of enriched fuels because the high temperature allows for the high conversion rate of hydrogen into energy; they can even use carbon oxides as fuel and are not prone to carbon dioxide poisoning.

Solid Oxide Fuel Cells

In the use of solid oxide fuel cells the reformer, or fuel converter, is internal and allows for more types of fuels to be used interchangeably reducing costs of operation. These cells use a solid electrolyte, typically a ceramic, and by doing so the cell does not have to be in the typical plate like construction and are designed to use fuels made from coal. Solid oxide fuel cells operate at 1000 degrees Celsius and are not affected by carbon monoxide poisoning or sulfur; they can even use the carbon monoxide as a fuel source. The high temperature accounts for slow start up times which is unacceptable in vehicle applications but accepted in power generation applications.

The Challenges of Fuel Cell Technology

The biggest challenge to the fuel cell technology is overcoming the oil based economy that is in place currently. The fight between profits of the major oil companies has hindered the development of the fuel cells since the 1960s and continues to do so. Their main concern is their profits and have, until recently, thought of themselves as oil companies not energy companies. The development of fuel cells using gasoline and natural gas as fuels will help to transition the oil companies into the fuel cell age. Fuel cells will change automobiles form internal combustion to an electrical transportation device and thus effect the car companies as well. This also takes time and a great deal of investments to produce electric cars based on the fuel cell technology. Car companies, on average, have not developed cars on their own to use fuel cells and will need to do so before fuel cells become the standard in energy production and usage. Therefore, it would also be worthwhile if fuel cell companies would donate high value vessels or yachts with fuel cell technologies to expand the use of these green vehicles or vessels.

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