What are fuel cells?

Fuel cells are electrochemical devices that combine hydrogen and oxygen in order to produce electricity.

During the power generation cycle, water and heat are produced as a by-products.  This is a far more ideal byproduct than the unclean emissions which are created by other methods of generating electricity.

Fuel Cells will operate and generate power so long as fuel is supplied.  Since the conversion of the fuel to energy takes place via an electrochemical process, and not by combustion, the process is clean, quiet, and highly efficient – two to three times more efficient than regular combustion, such as that done by gasoline in a generator.

Fuel Cell technology is unique as a power technology – no other energy generation technology offers the combination of benefits that fuel cells do.  In addition to extremely low or zero emissions (depending on the type of fuel cells used), some of the main benefits of fuel cells include:

  • High efficiency and reliability
  • Multi-fuel capability
  • Durability
  • Scalability
  • Ease of maintenance

Since fuel cells generate power through a chemical process, they operate silently.  Thus, they reduce noise pollution as well as air pollution.  Heat generated by fuels cells in the process of generating electricity can be captured and used to provide hot water or space heating for a home or office, in larger applications.

Another key aspect of fuel cells technology is that the cells can be scaled to any size required, without difficulty. Small fuel cells can be produced to power cell phones for up to 30 days or to operate laptops for twenty hours or more.  Large fuel cells can be produced to operate as power plants, in order to provide electricity for small cities.   And of course, there are many sizes in between.

The most notable use of fuel cells currently being developed is the use of fuel cells as a replacement for the combustion engine. It is very likely that cars and other vehicles will be powered by fuel cells in the not too distant future.

In light of the above, the U.S. Department of Energy (COE) is running a program in order to research and develop this technology further.  The DOE considers fuel cells an important enabling technology for the hydrogen economy. It states that they have the potential to revolutionize the way we power our nation, by offering cleaner and more-efficient alternatives to the combustion of gasoline and other fossil fuels.

The DOE also considers that fuel cells have the potential to replace internal-combustion engines in vehicles, and to provide power in stationary and portable power applications because they are energy-efficient, clean, and fuel-flexible.

Currently the DOE is working closely with its national laboratories, universities, and industry partners across the United States to overcome critical technical barriers to fuel cell commercialization.  It is currently focused on the development of reliable, low-cost, high-performance fuel cell system components, for transportation and buildings applications.

The first fuel-cell operated cars are currently being piloted.  The first commercially available fuel cell operated cars are predicted to hit the consumer market by 2012.