A fuel cell works like a battery but does not run down or need recharging. It will produce electricity and heat as long as fuel (hydrogen) is supplied. A fuel cell consists of two electrodes - a negative electrode (or anode) and a positive electrode (or cathode) - sandwiched around an electrolyte. Hydrogen is fed to the anode, and oxygen is fed to the cathode. Activated by a catalyst, hydrogen atoms separate into protons and electrons, which take different paths to the cathode. The electrons go through an external circuit, creating a flow of electricity. The protons migrate through the electrolyte to the cathode, where they reunite with oxygen and the electrons to produce water and heat.
A fuel cell converts the chemical energy of a fuel directly into usable electricity and heat without combustion. Fuel cells are similar to batteries in that both produce a direct current by means of an electrochemical process, but fuel cells can operate indefinitely as long as fuel is supplied to them. Fuel cells can provide power for cars and other applications, such as electricity and hot water for buildings.
Fuel Cell News
The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) announced in mid-October 2006 its award of $49 million in grants to develop buses powered by hydrogen fuel cells. The FTA, a part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, is awarding the funds to three non-profit organizations: the Center for Transportation and the Environment in Atlanta, Georgia; the Northeast Advanced Vehicle Consortium in Boston, Massachusetts; and WestStart-CALSTART of Pasadena, California. The funding will support 14 separate projects, including efforts to build a 35-foot plug-in hybrid fuel cell bus; to develop a lightweight fuel cell bus using ultracapacitors or lithium-ion batteries for energy storage; and to develop a 40-foot bus that couples a diesel engine with a fuel cell auxiliary power unit. The projects will employ fuel cells from Ballard Power Systems, Hydrogenics Corporation, Nuvera Fuel Cells, and UTC Power. Various fuel cell buses will be field tested in Alabama, California, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, New York, and South Carolina. See the FTA press release and a related FTA web page, which includes photos and the full list of projects.
Learn more about fuel cells
Breakthrough Technologies Institute/Fuel Cells 2000Breakthrough Technologies Institute, a nonprofit organization focusing on advanced energy and environmental technologies, has published a primer on fuel cells.
Future Fuel Cells
Fuel cells work without combustion and its environmental side effects. Power is produced electrochemically by passing a hydrogen-rich fuel over an anode and air over a cathode and separating the two by an electrolyte. In producing electricity, the only by-products are heat, water, and carbon dioxide. Hydrogen fuel can come from a variety of hydrocarbon resources by subjecting them to steam under pressure (called reforming or gasification).
Energy Technologies: Hydrogen Fuel Cells
Hydrogen's potential use in fuel and energy applications includes powering vehicles, running turbines or fuel cells to produce electricity, and generating heat and electricity for buildings. The current focus is on hydrogen's use in fuel cells.
National Fuel Cell Research Center
Publications, databases, and basic information about fuels cells can be found at the National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California-Irvine.
Rocky Mountain Institute
Rocky Mountain Institute is an entrepreneurial, nonprofit organization that fosters the efficient and restorative use of resources to create a more secure, prosperous, and life-sustaining world. The Institute website features information about fuel cells.