fuel cells

Fuel cells

Basic Fuel Cell

What Is A Fuel Cell?
Where does the hydrogen come from?

Generating Hydrogen

Fossil Fuel Based Hydrogen Production
Water Based Hydrogen Production
Other Methods of Hydrogen Generation
How does a fuel cell work?

Fuel Cell Benefits
Environmental Benefits
Engineering Benefits
Domestic Energy Security
Independence from the Power Grid
Fuel Cells vs. Traditional Batteries

Types of Fuel Cells

Phosphoric Acid
Proton Exchange Membrane or Solid Polymer
Molten Carbonate
Solid Oxide
Direct Methanol Fuel Cells
Regenerative Fuel Cells

What Is A Fuel Cell?

fuel cell in car

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.

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.

Fossil Fuel Based Hydrogen Production
A closer look at the chemical formula for any fossil fuel reveals that hydrogen is present in all of the formulas. The trick is to remove the hydrogen safely, efficiently and without any of the other elements present in the original compound. Hydrogen has been produced from coal, gasoline, methanol, natural gas and any other fossil fuel currently available. Some fossil fuels have a high hydrogen to oxygen ratio making them better candidates for the reforming process. The more hydrogen present and the fewer extraneous compounds make the reforming process simpler and more efficient. The fossil fuel that has the best hydrogen to carbon ratio is natural gas or methane(CH4).

Steam Reforming of Natural Gas
Hydrogen production from natural gas commonly employs a process known as steam reforming. Steam reforming of natural gas involves two steps. The initial phase involves rendering the natural gas into hydrogen, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. This breakdown of the natural gas is accomplished by exposing the natural gas to high temperature steam. The second phase of steam reforming consists of creating additional hydrogen and carbon dioxide by utilizing the carbon monoxide created in the first phase. The carbon monoxide is treated with high temperature steam and the resulting hydrogen and carbon dioxide is sequestered and stored in tanks. Most of the hydrogen utilized by the chemical and petroleum industries is generated with steam reforming. Steam reforming reaches efficiencies of 70% - 90%. The reformer component on a complete fuel cell system is usually a smaller variation of the process described above. Component reformers operate under varying operating conditions and the chemical path that the hydrogen generation follows will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, but the resulting hydrogen reformate is essentially the same.

Water Based Hydrogen Production

Relative to steam reforming, electrolysis is very expensive. The electrical inputs required to split the water into hydrogen and oxygen account for about 80% of the cost of hydrogen generation. Potentially, electrolysis, when coupled with a renewable energy source, can provide a completely clean and renewable source of energy. In other circumstances, electrolysis can couple with hydroelectric or off-peak electricity to reduce the cost of electrolysis.

Photoelectrolysis, known as the hydrogen holy grail in some circles, is the direct conversion of sunlight into electricity. Photovoltaics, semiconductors and an electrolyzer are combined to create a device that generates hydrogen. The photoelectrolyzer is placed in water and when exposed to sunlight begins to generate hydrogen. The photovoltaics and the semiconductor combine to generate enough electricity from the sunlight to power the electrolyzer. The hydrogen is then collected and stored. Much of the research in this field takes place in Golden, Colorado at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Photobiological production of hydrogen involves using sunlight, a biological component, catalysts and an engineered system. Specific organisms, algae and bacteria, produce hydrogen as a byproduct of their metabolic processes. These organisms generally live in water and therefore are biologically splitting the water into its component elements. Currently, this technology is still in the research and development stage and the theoretical sunlight conversion efficiencies have been estimated up to 24%. Over 400 strains of primitive plants capable of producing hydrogen have been identified, with 25 impressively achieving carbon monoxide to hydrogen conversion efficiencies of 100%.

In one example, researchers have discovered that the alga, Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, possesses an enzyme called hydrogenase that is capable of splitting water into its component parts of hydrogen and oxygen. The researchers have determined the mechanism for starting and stopping this process, which could lead to an almost limitless method for producing clean, renewable hydrogen. The algae need sulfur to grow and photosynthesize. Scientists found that when they starved the algae of sulfur, in an oxygen-free environment, the algae reverted to a hydrogenase-utilizing mode. This mechanism was developed over millions of years of evolution for survival in oxygen-rich and oxygen-free environments. Once in this cycle, the algae released hydrogen, not oxygen. Further research is necessary to improve the efficiencies of the engineered plant systems, collection methods and the costs of hydrogen generation.

Where does the hydrogen come from?

Hydrogen made from renewable energy resources provides a clean and abundant energy source, capable of meeting most of the future's high energy needs. When hydrogen is used as an energy source in a fuel cell, the only emission that is created is water, which can then be electrolyzed to make more hydrogen – the waste product supplies more fuel. This continuous cycle of energy production has potential to replace traditional energy sources in every capacity – no more dead batteries piling up in landfills or pollution-causing, gas-guzzling combustion engines. The only drawback is that hydrogen is still more expensive than other energy sources such as coal, oil and natural gas. Researchers are helping to develop technologies to tap into this natural resource and generate hydrogen in mass quantities and cheaper prices in order to compete with the traditional energy sources. There are three main methods that scientists are researching for inexpensive hydrogen generation. All three separate the hydrogen from a 'feedstock', such as fossil fuel or water - but by very different means.

Reformers - Fuel cells generally run on hydrogen, but any hydrogen-rich material can serve as a possible fuel source. This includes fossil fuels – methanol, ethanol, natural gas, petroleum distillates, liquid propane and gasified coal. The hydrogen is produced from these materials by a process known as reforming. This is extremely useful where stored hydrogen is not available but must be used for power, for example, on a fuel cell powered vehicle. One method is endothermic steam reforming. This type of reforming combines the fuels with steam by vaporizing them together at high temperatures. Hydrogen is then separated out using membranes. One drawback of steam reforming is that is an endothermic process – meaning energy is consumed. Another type of reformer is the partial oxidation (POX) reformer. CO2 is emitted in the reforming process, which makes it not emission-free, but the emissions of NOX, SOX, Particulates, and other smog producing agents are probably more distasteful than the CO2. And fuel cells cut them to zero.

Enzymes - Another method to generate hydrogen is with bacteria and algae. The cyanobacteria, an abundant single-celled organism, produces hydrogen through its normal metabolic function,. Cyanobacteria can grow in the air or water, and contain enzymes that absorb sunlight for energy and split the molecules of water, thus producing hydrogen. Since cyanobacteria take water and synthesize it to hydrogen, the waste emitted is more water, which becomes food for the next metabolism.

Solar- and Wind- powered generation - By harnessing the renewable energy of the sun and wind, researchers are able to generate hydrogen by using power from photovoltaics (PVs), solar cells, or wind turbines to electrolyze water into hydrogen and oxygen. In this manner, hydrogen becomes an energy carrier – able to transport the power from the generation site to another location for use in a fuel cell. This would be a truly zero-emissions way of producing hydrogen for a fuel cell.

Other Methods of Hydrogen Generation