In the search for an alternative method for clean energy, society is rediscovering a nearly 200 year old ingenious technology for generating electrical power.

October 10, 2012

Despite its history, fuel cell technology wasn't adapted for commercial and industrial use until the 1990's, and only began to be sold commercially around five years ago. Because of that, not many people know how fuel cells work.

A fuel cell is a device that uses hydrogen gas and combines it with oxygen from the air to create electricity and heat. It consists of two electrodes (which are plates capable of conducting electricity) called an anode and a cathode. These electrode plates sandwich a layer electrolytes.

When hydrogen gas comes from one side of the cell and hits the electrode plate, a catalyst that is integrated with the plate forces the hydrogen molecules to separate into protons and electrons. The protons pass through the electrolytes to the other side of the fuel cell. Meanwhile, the electrons flow through a wire that is connected to the electrodes (the direction of the flow being from the anode to the cathode). That flow of electrons is electricity and can power an electrical device (such as an electromotor or lights).

At the same time, oxygen from the air comes into contact with the electrode plate and catalyst that are on the other side of the fuel cell. That causes the protons, electrons, and the oxygen atoms to combine, producing water and heat. Both the water and heat could be discharged to the atmosphere, or the heat could be recaptured and used.

In this manner, fuel cells could power large commercial buildings, single family homes, and even replace internal combustion engines in cars. And their only emission into the atmosphere will be water and heat. Nothing else! No pollutants. The technology offers a promising, clean future and it is exciting to see just how far it can be integrated into our increasingly environmentally aware society.


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