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Hydrogen fuel cells

What Is A Fuel Cell?

In principle, a fuel cell operates like a battery. Unlike a battery, a fuel cell does not run down or require recharging. It will produce energy in the form of electricity and heat as long as fuel is supplied.

A fuel cell consists of two electrodes sandwiched around an electrolyte. Oxygen passes over one electrode and hydrogen over the other, generating electricity, water and heat.

A fuel cell produces electricity.

The fuel cell is similar to a battery. It produces electricity using chemicals. The chemicals are usually very simple, often just hydrogen and oxygen. In this case the hydrogen is the "fuel" that the fuel cell uses to make electricity.

Another very important difference is that fuel cells do not run down like batteries. As long as the fuel and oxygen is supplied to the cell it will keep producing electricty for ever.

The oxygen needed by a fuel cell is usually simply obtained from air.

Although the majority of fuel cells use hydrogen as the fuel, some fuel cells work off methane, and a few use liquid fuels such as methanol.

Fuel cells that use hydrogen can be thought of as devices that do the reverse of the well known experiment where passing an electric current through water splits it up into hydrogen and oxygen. In the fuel cell hydrogen and oxygen are joined together to produce water and electricty.

Fuel cells can be made in a huge range of sizes. They can be used to produce quite small amounts of electric power, for devices such as portable computers or radio transmitters, right up to very high powers for electric power stations.

Hydrogen fuel is fed into the "anode" of the fuel cell. Oxygen (or air) enters the fuel cell through the cathode. Encouraged by a catalyst, the hydrogen atom splits into a proton and an electron, which take different paths to the cathode. The proton passes through the electrolyte. The electrons create a separate current that can be utilized before they return to the cathode, to be reunited with the hydrogen and oxygen in a molecule of water.

A fuel cell system which includes a "fuel reformer" can utilize the hydrogen from any hydrocarbon fuel - from natural gas to methanol, and even gasoline. Since the fuel cell relies on chemistry and not combustion, emissions from this type of a system would still be much smaller than emissions from the cleanest fuel combustion processes.


 

BENEFITS OF FUEL CELLS

New Markets. Fuel cell power system markets could exceed $3 billion worldwide by 2000, according to a recent Arthur D. Little, Inc., study.

  • A mere one percent of the global vehicle market, 450,000 vehicles, would mean an another $2 billion or more.
  • Another recent study projected global demand for transportation fuel cells in 2007 at $9 billion.

Energy Security. U.S. energy dependence is higher today than it was during the "oil shock" of the 1970's, and oil imports are projected to increase. Passenger vehicles alone consume 6 million barrels of oil every single day, equivalent to 85% of oil imports.

  • If just 20 percent of cars used fuel cells, we could cut oil imports by 1.5 million barrels every day.
  • If every new vehicle sold in the U.S. next year was equipped with a 60kw fuel cell, we would double the amount of the country's available electricity supply.
  • 10,000 fuel cell vehicles running on non-petroleum fuel would reduce oil consumption by 6.98 million gallons per year.

Clean and Efficient. Fuel cells could dramatically reduce urban air pollution, decrease oil imports, reduce the trade deficit and produce American jobs.

The U.S. Department of Energy projects that if a mere 10% of automobiles nationwide were powered by fuel cells, regulated air pollutants would be cut by one million tons per year and 60 million tons of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide would be eliminated. DOE projects that the same number of fuel cell cars would cut oil imports by 800,000 barrels a day -- about 13 percent of total imports.

Fuel Cell Emissions

Fuel cells running on hydrogen derived from a renewable source will be nothing but water vapor. In fact, the following chart shows a comparison of the water vapor and carbon monoxide emissions from fuel cells, running on a variety of fuels, as compared to an internal combustion engine.

Engine Type Water Vapor/mile Carbon Dioxide/mile
Gasoline Combustion 0.39 lb. 0.85 lb.
Fuel Cell Running on Hydrogen from Gasoline 0.32 lb. 0.70 lb.
Fuel Cell Running on Hydrogen from Methane 0.25 lb. 0.15 lb.
Fuel Cell Running on Renewable Hydrogen 0.25 lb. 0.00 lb.

Courtesy of Jeremy Snyder, Desert Research Institute

 

Economic Growth: Fuel cells could create new markets for steel, electronics, electrical and control industries and other equipment suppliers. They could provide tens of thousands of high-quality jobs and reduce trade deficits. The consulting firm Arthur D. Little projects that fuel cell sales could reach $3 billion by the year 2000, with a market of 1,500-2,000 MW per year. The consultants estimate that each 1,000 MW will create 5,000 jobs. If just 20 percent of cars used fuel cells, 800,000 jobs would be created.

 

Frequently Asked Questions about Fuel Cells

Where did fuel cells come from?
What sort of fuels can be used in a fuel cell?
How would a fuel cell-powered car compare to one powered by a battery?
How much do fuel cells cost?
What's holding back use of fuel cells?
What about hydrogen safety?
What is the U.S. government doing now?
Why should the government support fuel cell development?
What are other countries doing?
What more should be done to spur development of fuel cells?

 


Where did fuel cells come from?

The first fuel cell was built in 1839 by Sir William Grove, a Welsh judge and gentleman scientist. Serious interest in the fuel cell as a practical generator did not begin until the 1960's, when the U.S. space program chose fuel cells over riskier nuclear power and more expensive solar energy. Fuel cells furnished power for the Gemini and Apollo spacecraft, and still provide electricity and water for the space shuttle.

What sort of fuels can be used in a fuel cell?

Fuel cells can promote energy diversity and a transition to renewable energy sources. Hydrogen -- the most abundant element on Earth -- can be used directly. Fuel cells can also utilize fuel containing hydrogen, including methanol, ethanol, natural gas, and even gasoline or diesel fuel. Fuels containing hydrgoen generally require a "fuel reformer" that extracts the hydrogen. Energy also could be supplied by biomass, wind, solar power or other renewable sources. Fuel cells today are running on many different fuels, even gas from landfills and wastewater treatment plants.

How would a fuel cell-powered car compare to one powered by a battery?

Fuel cell automobiles are an attractive advance from battery-powered cars. They offer the advantages of battery-powered vehicles but can also be refueled quickly and could go longer between refuelings.

Fuel cells utilizing hydrogen as a fuel would be zero emission vehicles, and those using other fuels would produce near-zero emissions. They are also more efficient than "grid"-powered battery vehicles. In addition, fuel cell cars could produce fewer "system-wide" releases of greenhouse gases -- taking into account all emissions associated with resource recovery, fuel processing and use.

Studies by General Motors and Ford noted that fuel cell car engines could be built for about the same price as an internal combustion engine.

How much do fuel cells cost?

One company commercially offers fuel cell power plants for about $3,000 pwer kilowatt. At that price, the units are competitive in high value, "niche" markets, and in areas where electricity prices are high and natural gas prices low.

A study by Arthur D. Little, Inc., predicted that when fuel cell costs drop below $1,500 per kilowatt, they will achieve market penetration nationwide. Several Companies are selling small units for research purposes. Prices vary.

Fuel cells will have to be much cheaper to become commercial in vehicles. Conventional car engines cost about $3,000 to manufacture. More research is needed to bring the cost of fuel cells down to that level, but officials at DaimlerChrysler have pledged to have a viable, commercial fuel cell vehicle available in 2004.

What's holding back use of fuel cells?

Fuel cells are still a young technology. Many technical and engineering challenges remain; scientists and developers are hard at work on them. The biggest problem is that fuel cells are still too expensive. One key reason is that not enough are being made to allow economies of scale. When the Model T Ford was introduced, it, too, was very expensive. Eventually, mass production made the Model T affordable.

What about hydrogen safety?

There are many myths about hydrogen which have recently been dispelled. Two years ago, a study of the Hindenburg incident found that it was not the hydrogen that was the cause of the accident. Safety tests performed by Ford Motor Company for the U.S. Department of Energy have found that the technologies being tested for storing hydrogen in a fuel cell vehicle are actually SAFER than storage of gasoline.

The following quotes are taken from "Direct-Hydrogen-Fueled Proton-Exchange-Membrane Fuel Cell System for Transportation Applications: Hydrogen Vehicle Safety Report" by Ford Motor Company, May 1997: Pg 17-18: "Addison Bain, a retired NASA safety expert, has conducted a comprehensive investigation of the Hindenburg incident, searching through archives in both the U.S. and in Germany, interviewing the few remaining witnesses including surviving crew members, and even securing the services of NASA scientists to analyze fragments of the Hindenburg saved as souvenirs. . . Bain's most startling hypothesis is that hydrogen may not have played a major role in the fire. He cites several witnesses that saw what could have been 'St. Elmos fire," -- lightning bolts attracted to the surface of the giant airship. His thorough analysis of the mechanical structure of the dirigible shows that any hydrogen leaking from the inner bags would have been vented to the outside. He shows from historical records and actual analysis of remaining fragments of the ship's gas bags that the construction was either cellulose acetate or cellulose nitrate. Both are flammable. . . In addition, aluminum flakes were added to the covering material to help reflect sunlight to keep the gas bags cool. But Bain points out that cellulose nitrate and metal chips are also the ingredients of rocket fuel, politely suggesting that it might not be wise to paint airships with rocket fuel! His final slide shows a photograph of another burning airship, engulfed in flames much like the Hindenburg. But with one major difference: this airship was filled with inert helium, not hydrogen, suggesting that the Hindenburg fire could very well have been started by lightning igniting highly flammable fabric on the airship. While hydrogen clearly added to the conflagration, the Hindenburg might have burned even if it had been filled with helium. In retrospect, the Hindenburg was a high riisk venture, since the 190,000 standard cubic meters (6.7 million SCF) of hydrogen was carried in a set of rubberized cloth bags, with little protection from outside disturbances. The energy content of the hydrogen was equivalent to about 1,900 gigajoules (GJ), or 19 GJ per passenger. A modern hydrogen-powered vehicle would be much safer, with energy stored in crash-tested tanks instead of flimsy cloth bags. A fuel cell electric vehicle would carry about 0.8 GJ of hydrogen energy for a four-passenger car, or 0.2 GJ per passenger. The hydrogen would be stored in one or more fiber wrapped composite tanks that could survive 50-mph head-on collisions, engulfment by a diesel fuel fire, and pressures at least 2.25 times design pressure without rupture. The message is clear: a modern fuel cell electric vehicle would have 2300 times less hydrogen energy content than the Hindenburg, or 100 times less per passenger, and the hydrogen container would be immeasurably stronger. In effect, there is no comparison between the safety aspects of the Hindenburg and those of a fuel cell vehicle."

With regards to the probability of a rupture of the hydrogen storage tank, Pg 30: "Each tank is tested at 1.5 times its rated operating pressure, and samples from each lot are pressure tested to failure. Each tank design must be qualified at 2.25 times normal operating pressure. Each class of tank is also subjected to gunfire and must not explode but leak only through the bullet-hole." (Try doing that to a gasoline tank!)

Pg xi: "In a collision in open spaces, a safety-engineered hydrogen FCV shound have less potential hazard than either a natural gas vehicle or a gasoline vehicle due to four factors. First, carbon fiber wrapped composite storage tanks (the leading high pressure storage tank material due to its low weight) are able to withstand greater impacts than the vehicle itself without rupture, thereby minimizing the risks of a large release of hydrogen as a result of a collision. Second, hydrogen, if released, disperses much faster than gasoline due to much greater buoyancy, reducing the risks of a post-collision fire. Third, the FCV will carry 60% less total energy than a gasoline or natural gas vehicle, resulting in less potential hazard should it ignite. Finally, the design recommended here includes an inertially activated switch in each FCV that, in the event of a collision, will simultaneously shut off the flow of hydrogen via a slenoid valve or valves, and will cut electrical power from the battery."

Pg. xii: "Hydrogen has 52 times greater buoyancy and 12.2 times greater diffusion coefficient than gasoline. Thys hydrogen will disperse much more quickly than gasoline or natural gas. Similarly, hydrogen's lower flammability limit is four times greater than that of gasoline."

What is the U.S. government doing now?

The U.S. Government owns and operates 30 fuel cell cogeneration units, the world's largest fleet of fuel cells.

The government helps in other ways. At least five cabinet-level Departments participate in fuel cell research and demonstration programs, investing more than $100 million per year. The U.S. Department of Energy spends the most: about $50 million on research in molten carbonate and solid oxide fuel cells for stationary power and more than $30 million on transportation applications.

The Department of Transportation also maintains a fuel cell bus research program. The Commerce Department supports fuel cells for premium ower applications and the Environmental Protection Agency has a program to facilitate the use of fuel cells at landfills and wastewater treatment plants.

The U.S. goverhment's Climate Change Fuel Cell Program provides grants of $1,000/kilowatt to purchasers of fuel cell power plants. The 'buydown' program has so far awarded $18.8 million in assistance for the purchase of 94 fuel cell units.

Fuel cell vehicles could transport American troops on the battlefield of the future, and could serve as a vital source of auxiliary power in combat. That's because fuel cells are quiet, flexible, and operate at low temperature, making them ideal for use in "stealth" vehicles. Fuel cells are also being developed for submarines, surface ships and a variety of other military uses.

Why should the government support fuel cell development?

Fuel cells can provide major engironmental, energy and economic benefits that advance critical national goals. Development and optimization of energy technologies has always been a partnership between government and the private sector.

Other power technologies have enjoyed considerable support in the past, including tax credits for natural gas drilling, military support for gas turbine technology, support for solar power research, nuclear power research and coal cleanup technologies, among many other programs.

What are other countries doing?

The U.S. faces fierce competition from other countries. Canada, Japan and Germany are aggressively promoting fuel cell development with tax credits, low-interest loans and grants to support early urchases and drive down costs

Toyota has been investing heavily in fuel cell vehicle research, showcasing a methanol-fueled fuel cell version of its RAV4 sport-utility vehicle in Fall 1997. DiamlerChrysler recently invested CAN$450 million in cash into Canada's Ballard Power Systems for development of fuel cell vehicles. DaimlerChrysler has already unveiled four fuel cell vehicles, the latest being a hydrogen fuel cell passenger vehicle based on the company's A-class car. The company has a fuel cell bus.

Ballard also has fuel cell buses running both in Canada, and on the streets of Chicago. Almost all other automakers researhcing fuel cell cars are incorporating Ballard fuel cell engines. After receiving $30 million from the Government of Canada, Ballard has teamed up with the subsidiary of a New Jersey electric company to commercialize stationary fuel cell cogeneration units.

What more should be done to spur development of fuel cells?

The U.S. government should take three steps to help commercialize fuel cells:

1. Major increases are needed in research and development budgets of the Departments of Energy and Transportation, and elsewhere.

2. The federal government should also take the lead to purchase early power units and vehicles.

3. The government should continue and expand the program to help "buy down" the cost of early units installed around the country.

To put costs into perspective, we pay more than $5 billion for imported oil each month. A small fraction of that amount could fully commercialize fuel cells within five years and create tens of thousands of jobs.

 

 

 

Instructions for your Expandable Hydrogen Fuelcell and electrolyser

Congratulations on the purchase of your new Hydrocell Fuelcell from Bull-Electrical. You are about to enter into the relatively new and available energy source which will which will power our future planets needs. Here are a few things about your cell. When you require more voltage/current, then simply purchase the add-on kits Your cell comes ready assembled and can be taken apart and cells added when the time comes to upgrade. Feed the Hydrogen from your electrolyzer into either feed tube to get instant power!

 

 

You will get between 0,5 and 1 volt at between 300 and 1000 Milliamps from your cell depending on whether you boost it with oxygen. This is the starter cell and the endpieces have been engineered to take you right up to 12 volts @ 10W.

 

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Click to enlarge Hydrogen fuel cell kit image

The parts of your cell.

8 x m5 wingnuts.

Hydrogen side stainless steel mesh.

Hydrogen side endpiece with 3mm feed tubes, flow gasket and connector.

Hydrogen side gas diffusion mat.

4 x m5 threaded bars.

Membrane electrode assembly M.E.A.

Oxygen side endpiece with label and connector.

Oxygen side stainless steel mesh x 2

Oxygen side gas diffusion mat.

 

The Hydrogen side is negative, the oxygen side positive. Connect to the stainless steel bolts with the spare nuts.

Dont ever handle, scratch or damage the membrane. Even a tiny pinprick will destroy it!

hydrokit.jpg (23897 bytes)click to enlarge Hydrogen fuel cell and electri

The above picture shows a solar panel to produce the electricity, a container to pass the electricity through, a plastic pipe to feed the hydrogen to the cell and a hydrogen fuel cell powering an electric fan.

 

 

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