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17.2 The Fuel Cell
A fuel cell is an electrochemical device which combines hydrogen fuel with oxygen to produce electric power, heat and water. In many ways, the fuel cell resembles a battery. Rather than applying a periodic recharge, a continuous supply of oxygen and hydrogen is supplied from the outside. Oxygen is drawn from the air and hydrogen is carried as a fuel in a pressurized container. As alternative fuel, methanol, propane, butane and natural gas can be used.
The fuel cell does not generate energy through burning; rather, it is based on an electrochemical process. There are little or no harmful emissions. The only release is clean water. In fact, the water is so pure that visitors to Vancouver’s Ballard Power Systems, the leader in the development of the proton exchange membrane fuel cell (PEMFC), drank clear water emitted from the tailpipes of buses powered by a Ballard fuel cell.
The fuel cell is twice as efficient in converting fuel to energy through a chemical process than combustion. Hydrogen, the simplest element consisting of one proton and one electron, is plentiful and is exceptionally clean as a fuel. Hydrogen makes up 90 percent of the composition of the universe and is the third most abundant element on the earth’s surface. Such a wealth of fuel would provide an almost unlimited pool of energy at relatively low cost. But there is a price to pay. The fuel cell core (or ‘stack’), which converts oxygen and hydrogen to electricity, is expensive to build.
Hydrogen must be carried in a pressurized bottle. If propane, natural gas or diesel are used, a reformer is needed to convert the fuel to hydrogen. Reformers for PEMFCs are bulky and expensive. They start slowly and purification is required. Often the hydrogen is delivered at low pressure and additional compression is required. Some fuel efficiency is lost and a certain amount of pollution is produced. However, these pollutants are typically 90 percent less than what comes from the tailpipe of a car.
The fuel cell concept was developed in 1839 by Sir William Grove, a Welsh judge and gentleman scientist. The invention never took off, partly because of the success of the internal combustion engine. It was not until the second half of the 20th century when scientists learned how to better utilize materials such as platinum and TeflonÔ, that the fuel cell could be put to practical use.
A fuel cell is electrolysis in reverse, using two electrodes separated by an electrolyte. Hydrogen is presented to the negative electrode (anode) and oxygen to the positive electrode (cathode). A catalyst at the anode separates the hydrogen into positively charged hydrogen ions and electrons. On the PEMFC system, the oxygen is ionized and migrates across the electrolyte to the anodic compartment where it combines with hydrogen. The byproduct is electricity, some heat and water. A single fuel cell produces 0.6 to 0.8V under load. Several cells are connected in series to obtain higher voltages.
The first practical application of the fuel cell system was made in the 1960s during the Gemini space program, when this power source was favored over nuclear or solar power. The fuel cell, based on the alkaline system, generated electricity and produced the astronauts’ drinking water. Commercial application of this power source was prohibitive because of the high cost of materials. In the early 1990s, improvements were made in stack design, which led to increased power densities and reduced platinum loadings at the electrodes.
High cost did not hinder Dr. Karl Kordesch, the co-inventor of the alkaline battery, from converting his car to an alkaline fuel cell in the early 1970s. Dr. Kordesch drove the car for many years in Ohio, USA. The hydrogen tank was placed on the roof and the trunk was utilized to store the fuel cell and back-up batteries. According to Dr. Kordesch, there was “enough room for four people and a dog”.