A fuel cell is basically an engine that produces electricity. Which is not that different in it’s make up to its cousin, the standard battery. As the cells found within are very similar and as with batteries it produces electricity by means of a chemical reaction. But unlike standard batteries that store electrical energy chemically and need to be recharged, the energy in fuel cells is derived from an external fuel source.
The basic fuel used is hydrogen and it’s the chemical reaction this has with oxygen in the atmosphere that produces the electricity. Apart from being very efficient the reaction produces no emissions, it is silent and the only by-product created is water. So it’s an environmentalists wet dream.
Hydrogen is the most desirable fuel as it can be extracted from various sources: Natural Gas, Water and coal. But other fuels can be used indirectly such as Methane, ethanol, petrol (they must be rich in hydrogen.)
At present the hydrogen used is a by-product of fossil fuel processing, but with further technological advances it’s possible to extract the hydrogen from water.
Although there is a massive amount of research in fuel cell technology currently underway in this area we are probably still 10 to 20 years away from widespread use, as we are still in the research and development stage. There are major hurdles that need to be overcome before this can become a viable alternative to fossil fuels.
Firstly we need to find a more cost effective and environmentally friendly way to produce hydrogen. Then there are infrastructure problems as distributing hydrogen on a large scale would involve an investment of tens of Billions and need the complete cooperation of Energy Companies, Automakers and Governments.
Other Uses of Fuel Cells
The most popular use for fuel cells is with automobiles, but they are a very scaleable technology and can be used to power small devices like mobile phones right the way through to factories. This is why government’s, energy companies and the automakers are investing such a great deal of time and money on this new technology and it’s a matter of when not if fuel cells finally come into fruition.
The Pros and Cons of Hydrogen Fuel Cells
• They are environmentally friendly, produce no emissions, no odour and no noise.
• Hydrogen has more energy than gasoline.
• Hydrogen is available from numerous sources (natural gas, Water, etc…)
• No geopolitical issues due to the unlimited and plentiful supply of sources.
• The technology is scaleable and could be used from phones to industrial generators.
• At present they are expensive to produce and technically wise they pose quite a few problems.
• Harvesting the hydrogen is a complex and costly process.
• The cheapest source of hydrogen is Natural gas.
• No distribution infrastructure in place
• No standardized storage method.
• Hydrogen isn’t an energy source, but an energy store as energy is used to make the hydrogen.
So looking at all of the above evidence, it’s clear that the potential for fuel cells is quite staggering. If we can overcome the production and storage issues the industry is currently facing they really could come to revolutionise the Auto and Energy Industries and help make this world a cleaner and healthier place.