The Future of the Fuel Cell - Part I

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Nearly a decade ago, fuel cells seemed like a promising, innovative replacement for automobile engines. Well, what exactly happened to the fuel cell? 

A fuel cell is the short name for an electrochemical energy conversion device, which means that it produces electricity by converting two chemicals, hydrogen and oxygen, into water. The only byproducts are heat and water, meaning it produces virtually zero greenhouse gas emissions. It's not a new concept either--the very first ones were developed in 1839.  Overall, it's essentially a renewable and sustainable method of energy production since the sources of oxygen and hydrogen are water and air. 

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Fuel Cells in Cars

In 2003, President Bush predicted that fuel cells would be the future of car engines. He said that, “the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and be pollution-free.”

Simply placing fuel cells in cars is not enough to be "pollution free," however. In order for a fuel cell to be considered sustainable, the source of pure hydrogen that fuels the cell can not be from a power plant that burns coal, oil, or other fossil fuels. With our current energy mix, most hydrogen would be coming from power generated from one of these unsustainable sources.

Infrastructure

Setting up a widespread hydrogen fueling infrastructure wouldn't exactly be easy, but it is possible.  Also, fuel cells can be made to convert other sources of hydrogen found in conventional fuels (i.e. hydrocarbons such as methane gas) which would be more convenient for drivers. One downside of using these conventional fuels, though, is that while these cars would be much more energy efficient (about 50% more) than standard combustion engines, emissions would not only consist of water and heat, but also carbon dioxide (CO2), the greenhouse gas we've all been trying to eliminate from production.

Price

One of the main reasons fuel cell technology has not been widely adopted is due to the price tag. There are many expensive metals (such as platinum) involved in creating fuel cells, but as soon as production becomes less expensive, they will become accepted into a larger market. Also, research is being done into using less expensive materials in order to drive down cost.  Only when cost comes down will fuel cells be a crucial part of our future.

 The Future of Fuel Cells

The future of fuel cells in the automobile was deemed bleak when President Obama decided to cancel fuel cell research for cars in 2009 in search of more efficient and less expensive technologies. But fuel cell technology can easily be almost 100% sustainable. Some options to achieve that are listed below.

1. Use wind, solar, or hydroelectric power systems to produce the energy needed to extract hydrogen from electrolysis of water.

2. Use a bio-inspired system such as algae to produce hydrogen. Read the full report here.

3. Artificial photosynthesis (the new -and still developing- process developed by researches from the group led by Juan Bisquert.) This new device, or an "artificial leaf," implements nanotechnology, semiconductor materials, and sunlight to produce hydrogen in a process that mimics natural photosynthesis seen in plants. 

4. Use biofuel waste, such as that from sugarcane, to produce hydrogen. This would make the sugarcane production and the fuel cell production processes sustainable. Read more here

Besides fueling our automobiles, what else can fuel cells be used for?  Stay tuned for part II next week, when we show showcase some other potential uses for fuel cells.