Academic journal article The Technology Teacher

Exploring Hydrogen Fuel Cell Technology

Academic journal article The Technology Teacher

Exploring Hydrogen Fuel Cell Technology

Article excerpt


One of the most significant technological issues of the 21st Century is finding a way to fulfill our energy demands without destroying the environment through global warming and climate change. Worldwide human population is on the rise, and with it, the demand for more energy in pursuit of a higher quality of life. In the meantime, as we use up our fossil fuel energy supplies, the quality of our environment is diminishing. By finding a way to provide clean, sustainable, environmentally friendly energy, we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help reverse the negative trends afflicting our planet (Sweet, 2006). One very promising technology that is currently being utilized and is continually being improved is the hydrogen fuel cell (HFC). It is an energy-conversion device that converts hydrogen fuel into usable electricity. HFC technology has the potential to help satisfy the rapidly growing energy demands of the world, and in turn, improve the quality of our environment. With this kind of potential, research and development in HFC technology continues to produce viable energy alternatives through the combined efforts of many scientists, engineers, and technologists (Borowitz, 1999).

The aim of this article is to provide an overview of HFC technology, and with it, a description of its simplicity in design and functionality. In addition, a rationale for HFC content and several strategies for teaching about this exciting technology are presented.

What is a Hydrogen Fuel Cell?

An HFC is an electrochemical device that acts to convert chemical energy directly into electrical energy. The entire electrochemical conversion process is accomplished cleanly and efficiently without the use of any moving parts. During the process, a fuel of hydrogen-rich compounds is converted into electricity in the form of direct current that can be used much like a battery, as long as the fuel is supplied to the cell. A combination of fuel cells can be connected in series or parallel circuits in order to increase electrical voltage or current output. Stacking cells together in series or parallel creates what is termed a fuel-cell stack. A variety of fuel cell designs are being pursued and developed for a wide variety of applications. Many of these designs have already been implemented and continue to gain acceptance as effective means of providing electrical power.

The multitude of HFC designs are classified by the type of electrolyte that they employ. Electrolyte types determine how the HFC functions, specifically, the temperature range at which they operate, the catalysts they utilize, the fuel they require, and other factors upon which they depend (USDOE, 2007; Hoogers, 2003). Of all currently utilized HFC designs, the Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cell can serve as the focus of beginning HFC instruction, "because of [its] simplicity, viability, quick start-up, and ability to be utilized in almost any conceivable application, from powering a cell phone to a locomotive" (Sammes, 2006, p. 27). The PEM fuel cell functions through the use of a specially designed and produced polymer that acts to create a voltage difference with the addition of hydrogen fuel and oxygen (Basu, 2007; Hoogers, 2003; Sammes, 2006). A complete breakdown of the PEM fuel cell can be seen in Figure 1, illustrating the simplicity of its components in both design and functionality.


How do Hydrogen Fuel Cells Function?

PEM fuel cells run on hydrogen and oxygen and produce only electricity, water, and excess heat as by-products of their operation. The production of electricity happens through an electrochemical process known in science as an oxidation-reduction (redox) reaction, which takes place at the anode and cathode of the fuel cell. In this type of reaction, what actually occurs are two simultaneous half reactions. At the anode of the fuel cell, hydrogen is being oxidized (losing electrons), and at the cathode, oxygen is being reduced (gaining electrons). …

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