Fuel Cells, Part 1: Powering Up a Revolution

Over the last decade, mainstream automakers with the right foresight have put their money on technologies like gasoline-electric hybrids in order to offer consumers what they desire more and more with each visit to the gas pump: a more efficient personal vehicle. A little further out, plug-in hybrids that need even less gasoline will perhaps become a more common sight on the road, further reducing users’ dependency on fossil fuels.

Beyond that, fuel cell vehicles may be the next step.

Much has been made recently of fuel cell engines as a replacement for the combustion engines found in gas-powered cars, though the underlying technology isn’t entirely late-breaking. The concepts behind fuel cells have been familiar to scientists for over 100 years, and the technology has been used by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to power space-faring vehicles for decades. The Administration used fuel cells to power missions in its Apollo program, active from 1961 to 1975. They are also currently used in the space shuttle program.

However, potential applications for fuel cells stretch well beyond powering vehicles — even tiny electronic devices can conceivably be powered by the technology.

What Is a Fuel Cell?

Fuel cells are electrochemical conversion devices that produce electricity from a liquid or gaseous fuel. Combining hydrogen and oxygen, for example, fuel cells can produce electricity; water and heat are by-products.

They work by catalysis, a process that separates the component electrons and protons in reactant fuel and forces the electrons through a circuit, which converts them into electrical energy. The catalyst is typically a platinum group metal or alloy. Water and heat are formed when another catalytic reverses the process and recombines the electrons with the protons and oxidant to form water and carbon dioxide.

Fuel cells will continue to generate power so long as they contain fuel and an oxidant.

Because the conversion of the fuel takes place using an electrochemical process rather than combustion (as is the case with, for example, coal-powered energy plans) fuel cell technology is relatively clean, quiet and efficient.

Although hydrogen-oxygen proton exchange membrane fuel cells (PEMFC) have perhaps received the bulk of media attention, other inert gases can also be used.

“Everybody has been looking at hydrogen. And hydrogen is a great solution, as are all inert gases, because as you burn it, it basically turns into water vapor. It really doesn’t hurt the environment at all,” explained Jim McGregor, an analyst at In-Stat.

In addition to using different types of fuel, the technology uses different forms of these fuels. Ford and Honda, for example, have fuel cells that use gas hydrogen, while BMW’s solution uses liquid hydrogen, McGregor told TechNewsWorld. General Motors, meanwhile, is testing hydrogen in a variety of states.

Years in the Making

The theory behind fuel cells has been around for over 150 years. Christian Friedrich Schnbein, a German scientist, is credited with making important initial discoveries in the field in 1838. The first fuel cell model was developed a year later in 1839 by Welsh scientist Sir William Robert Grove and used substances analogous to those found in the phosphoric acid fuel cells of today.

Over 80 years later, scientists at General Electric (GE) began developing workable models of the technology. First, W. Thomas Grubb created a modified version of the original fuel cell. Grubb’s design used a sulphonated polystyrene ion-exchange membrane as the electrolyte in 1955. Three years later, Leonard Niedrach, a GE chemist, added platinum to the membrane to act as a catalyst for the requisite hydrogen oxidation and oxygen reduction reactions.

The resulting device was known as the “Grubb-Niedrach fuel cell” and was the basis for technology GE developed for entities like NASA. It was subsequently used to supply electricity to spacecrafts used during the Project Gemini manned spaceflight program in 1965 and 1966.

Fuel Cells at Work

Fuel cells, like a batteries or engines, can feasibly be used for anything that requires power, explained Jennifer Gangi, program director at Fuel Cells 2000.

“[In] any application that needs electricity or power, the fuel cell can be used. In a car it would replace an engine. In a building it would replace the generator, or however they make their power. In a cell phone, it would replace the battery,” she told TechNewsWorld.

Manufacturers already have fuel-cell-powered buses, trains, planes, scooters, forklifts and even bicycles in development. Fuel cells also provide the energy needed for vending machines, vacuum cleaners, and highway road signs, Gangi pointed out.

Fuel cells are hard at work powering thousands of buildings around the country including hospitals, nursing homes, hotels, office buildings, schools and utility power plants, Gangi noted.

“You can buy a fuel cell today for a building. The cost right now is still very expensive and so [it] isn’t that common. You’re starting to see them being used as backup power and more and more as primary power,” she said.

One benefit of fuel cells is reliability. Organizations that need a consistent power supply, such as hospitals or buildings in areas that are prone to power outages, are installing stationary fuel cells, Gangi reported.

Buyers are largely businesses that would stand to lose a great deal of money should power fail, and organizations that don’t want to connect a building or device to the overall power grid, she explained.

Wastewater treatment plants and landfills are also using the technology to convert methane gas into electricity. Fuel cells are being used by telecoms to power cell phone, radio and 911 towers.

Electronic device makers are also pursuing the technology as a means to power mobile phones, laptop computers and other portable electronics. MTI Micro, a fuel cell firm, and NeoSolar, a portable device manufacturer, announced a partnership in July to develop a fuel cell for NeoSolar’s ultra mobile personal computer (UMPC).

Future Plans

Though fuel cells have a small role now, they will have a larger impact in the future, said Nick Lenssen, an analyst with IDC’s Energy Insights.

“There are quite a few different fuel cell technologies out there. Different ones have technical specifications that are more in line with particular applications,” he told TechNewsWorld.

For example, high-temperature oxide fuel cells are not going to be put into a car, and low-temperature PEM fuel cells that have short-lived membrane stacks will not be put used in baseload stationary situations, such as powering an entire building.

Over the past 10 years fuel cell companies have found that not every fuel cell works with every application. A lot of the PEM fuel cell companies thought they would be selling baseload combining power applications, but they found that the technology was not suitable because the membrane did not last long and the heat generated was too low for most heating, ventilating and air conditioning applications, Lenssen explained.

UTC, a one-time leader the fuel cell market, has revamped its design ,opting for a phosphoric acid technology that the company said will last twice as long and is slightly more efficient. Several other companies are trying to develop a solid oxide fuel technology for stationary fuel cells.

In addition, BMW and Siemens-Westinghouse are moving forward slowly with to commercialize products in the next decade.

Fuel Cells, Part 2: The Future of Power

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