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Fuel Cells Offer Non-Combustion Option

System Becoming More Attractive To Car Manufacturers


Hydrogen Fuel Cells

Hydrogen fuel cells have applications in vehicles as well as other industries.

U.S. Dept. of Energy

Higher gas prices have fuel cell investors hopeful that the focus will again shift to alternative fuels.

Fuel cells offer an environmentally conscious choice for vehicles, as well as heating and cooling systems, and even backup power for cell phone towers.

How do they work? Fuel cells are a bit like batteries, but differ in that they must be fed fuel constantly to function. Because of this, they also do not run down or need recharging like batteries, so from that sense, they are a bit of a trade-off in features generally attributed to traditional batteries.

So how do they work? Fuel cells convert stored energy from fuels like natural gas or hydrogen gas into electricity in a way that allows it to bypass combustion. Some researchers are working at developing fuel cells that convert fuel from renewable energy sources, such as algae or biomass, as a next generation fuel cell.

Regardless of its energy source, a fuel cell generally consists of two electrodes sandwiched around an electrolyte. Oxygen passes over one electrode, while hydrogen passes over the other, generating electricity, water and heat as energy.

You can probably see why development of fuel cells has generated quite a bit of attention. They are attractive in that they can operate on a variety of fuels, including not only natural gas—which admittedly raises its own kind of environmental concerns—but biomass and other green fuels because a fuel cell system that has been developed to include a "fuel reformer" can utilize the hydrogen from any hydrocarbon fuel. Relying on chemistry, not combustion, emissions from a fuel cell system, are much smaller than those from even clean fuel combustion vehicles. Fuel cell technology is one of the cleanest potential energy sources being developed.

The big car manufacturers have fuel cells on their radars, with both Ford and Toyota projecting that they could be mass-producing fuel cell cars as early as 2015. Toyota spokespersons say they are working to slash the cost and bring their fuel cell sedan to the mainstream, a measure that could mean having to cut the cost of their fuel cell to about one-twentieth of what it was during early development stages in 2008.

One example of using renewable fuels is development of fuel cells utilizing methanol technology, termed direct methanol cells. Caltech/NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory has shown itself to be a leader in the technology, partnering with the University of Southern California (USC). So far, they've been researching its use in a wide range of portable and mobile electronics.

These electrochemical devices are being heralded for their green standing. Why? Because they have the ability to convert high energy density fuel, in this case liquid methanol, directly to electricity, according to the researching company which has developed disposable methanol fuel cartridges that provide the energy source for fuel cell powered notebook computers, mobile phones, and even military equipment. Currently, the company says it is developing applications for other electronics with hopes of partnering with major electronics companies.

Other advantages? They operate silently, at relatively low temperatures and offer much longer operating time than today’s batteries. This is exactly the direction that researchers working on lithium ion batteries are also trying to achieve. But proponents say fuel cells are better than a battery and direct methanol fuel cells don’t need to be recharged, a huge bonus. Advantages for the consumer are that these fuel cells can provide electricity continuously to the consumer electronic devices as long as oxygen and fuel are available to the fuel cell. In order to keep them available, the direct methanol fuel cells can be “hot-swapped” and instantly recharged with replacement methanol cartridges, much like batteries are switched out.

Methanol or a methanol/water solution holds promos also because it is easy to store, exists as a liquid, and is easy to transport. It is also inexpensive and readily available.

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