Fuel Cells


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The components of a proton-exchange membrane fuel cell.

The components of a proton-exchange membrane fuel cell.
Click to enlarge

Undoubtedly while you carry out your day-to-day work around the radio station you use at least several rechargeable batteries. In a sense we are slaves to those batteries — because other technological considerations aside — if its battery is dead, it doesn't matter how good and useful the technology of the device is. And to make matters worse, the energy we need to recharge those batteries (i.e. ac power) usually isn't available where it is needed anyway, right? Otherwise we wouldn't need the batteries in the first place.

Battery technology hasn't kept up with the advancements in technology of the myriad of portable devices available now. Conventional wisdom is that the last important battery innovation was the introduction of the lithium-ion type, back in 1991. There have really only been incremental improvements since then; however, the late interest in electric vehicles has accelerated further developments. Very large versions of the lithium-ion battery type, for example, are expected to show up in hybrid vehicles this year.

The fact of the matter, though, is that all batteries run out of charge eventually. Wouldn't it be great to have an alternative power source that was easily portable (unlike a generator), that worked day or night (unlike solar cells)?

Ever heard of fuel-cells?

Fuel-cells exist today, and have been used to generate power for decades. But for everyday applications, they aren't quite ready for prime-time. Development is on-going, though, and it's likely that we will be seeing fuel-cells come in to regular use in the not-too-distant future. In this article, we'll take a look at their history, how they work, and the technological development of fuel-cells over the last 150 years. We'll end by looking at the state of the technology in 2008.

Early work

The original idea behind the fuel cell is credited to the German Christian Friedrich Schönbein who published the idea in 1838. The following year, the Welsh engineer Sir William Grove demonstrated the first application of the idea.

In the 1930s, the British engineer Francis Bacon took up the idea, and developed it over the following two decades. In 1959 he successfully demonstrated a 5kW unit powerful enough to run an arc-welder. Pratt and Whitney licensed Bacon's patents in the U.S. and they were subsequently used for the fuel-cells that flew in U.S. space missions in the 1960s. These fuel-cells generated electricity and the waste product of pure water.

Basically a fuel-cell is a device inside of which are three components: the anode, the cathode and electrically non-conductive separator. Both the anode and cathode are coated with a catalyst.

On the anode side, the hydrogen fuel is exposed to the catalyst, which encourages the disassociation of electrons from hydrogen atoms. The positive hydrogen ions will migrate through the separator; but, since the separator is electrically non-conductive, the electrons cannot move through it. This creates a potential difference (voltage) between the anode and cathode.



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