Hydrogen Fuel Cells: Part of the Solution: Hydrogen Fuel Cells Are Projected to Become a Major Contributor of Energy While Reducing the Use of Fossil Fuels

By Busby, Joe R.; Altork, Linh Nguyen | Technology and Engineering Teacher, October 2010 | Go to article overview

Hydrogen Fuel Cells: Part of the Solution: Hydrogen Fuel Cells Are Projected to Become a Major Contributor of Energy While Reducing the Use of Fossil Fuels


Busby, Joe R., Altork, Linh Nguyen, Technology and Engineering Teacher


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With the decreasing availability of oil and the perpetual dependence on foreign-controlled resources, many people around the world are beginning to insist on alternative fuel sources. Hydrogen fuel cell technology is one answer to this demand (Ewing, 2007). Although modern fuel cell technology has existed for over a century, the technology is only now becoming affordable enough to turn the concept into reality for the consumer market (Concurrent Technologies Corporation, 2009). As the demand for fuel cells increases, prices will continue to drop as this technology becomes recognized as a viable energy source.

Technology teachers can utilize hydrogen fuel cell technology to address content standards dealing with energy inputs, processes, and outputs as indicated in Standards for Technological Literacy: Content for the Study of Technology (STL) (ITEA/ITEEA, 2000/2002/2007): Standard 5--the effects of technology on the environment, Standard 16--energy and power technologies, and Standard 18--transportation technologies. Through research and activity, students and teachers can understand and apply the technology and become advocates, thus fulfilling the technological literacy standards.

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History

William Nicholson and Anthony Carlisle in 1800 split water into hydrogen and oxygen by using an electric current (NYSERDA, n.d.). This process was later named electrolysis. Christian Friedrich Schoenbein in 1838 reversed the electrolysis process and developed the fuel-cell effect by combining hydrogen and oxygen and producing electricity and water (NYSERDA, n.d.). Sir William Robert Grove, a friend of Schoenbein, created the first fuel cell, dubbed "the gas battery" in 1845 (CFCL, 2009). Grove became known as the "Father of the Fuel Cell" because of his invention (NYSERDA, n.d.).

It is debatable which team of scientists should be credited with creating the first modern fuel cell. In 1989, Ludwig Mond and Carl Langer created a cell using coal gas, air, and electrodes made of perforated platinum. They were able to achieve 6 amps per square foot area of an electrode (Smithsonian Institution, 2004) and also coined the name "fuel cell" (Concurrent Technologies Corporation, 2009b). Around the same time, Charles R. Alder Wright and C. Thompson also created a fuel cell using double-coated plates. They complained about gas leaks and said that if money were not an object, then a device could be made to produce quantities of electricity sufficient for industry (Woodside, 2006).

Francis Thomas Bacon demonstrated a fuel cell in 1958 that incorporated a stack of 10-inch diameter alkali electrodes made of potassium hydroxide. His cells were licensed by Pratt & Whitney and eventually were used on the Apollo spacecraft (Smithsonian Institution, 2004).

Types of Fuel Cells

There are several different types of fuel cells on the market (DOE, 2009a). Fuel cells are usually categorized by their electrolyte, which determines the optimal operating temperature and particular fuel need to perform (Rocky Mountain Institute, 2009b). Some are better suited for industrial applications, while others can be adapted for consumer use.

Phosphoric Acid Fuel Cells (PAFC) are composed of a concentration of phosphoric acid electrolyte with platinum catalysts for the electrodes. Using hydrogen as the anode gas and atmospheric oxygen as the cathode gas, PAFC have an operating temperature of 400[degrees] F. PAFC are used as small power plants (DOE, 2009a).

Molten Carbonate Fuel Cells (MCFC) use either a lithium carbonate and potassium carbonate electrolyte or lithium carbonate and sodium carbonate electrolyte. They also use hydrogen or methane as the anode gas and atmospheric oxygen as the cathode gas. MCFC are used as large stationary power plants and produce 50 kilowatts to 5 megawatts of electricity with an operating temperature of 1,100[degrees] 12. …

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