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Future Energy Concepts - The Fuel Cell

Posted on May 13, 2021 by Jordan Reynolds

A fuel cell is a relatively vague phrase thrown around by people in the know and the ones that know comparatively little. No matter the specific design, a fuel cell is basically a cell like a battery where a chemical process happens to generate electricity. In cases like this, however, the fuel is hydrogen. The basic idea is to combine hydrogen with oxygen in a process which produces electricity. This power is then used as we would normally use it in our own lives.

If you read the newspaper or watch the news, one would think the idea of hydrogen fuels at a new one. In actuality, it's not. The first one was made in 1839. The issue, of course, was it was ineffective and there was not much attention since fossil fuels were plentiful and our energy demands were tiny in comparison to today. It was not until the 1960s that much interest was shown in the energy system. As with many improvements, NASA decided to use fuel cells to power the Gemini and Apollo spacecrafts. However, the trick was translating this restricted use to wide spread applications in daily life.

A frequent misconception is that a fuel cell represents renewable energy. Very clearly, it doesn't. It's a device, not an energy system. It's like saying a hydroelectric dam is a renewable energy. The dam is a system to exploit a renewable energy source, but not a power source in and of itself. The fuel cell works much the exact same way. It's a methodology for harnessing energy from hydrogen. The specific method can be clean or dirty, to wit, an individual can use coal or water for the base material. Obviously, coal isn't much help.

Fuel cells can be conducted, in theory, on any substance containing hydrogen. This implies renewable energy sources like hydrogen, biogas, etc. The principal purpose is to focus on water and other renewable sources due to their inherent clean benefits. When hydrogen is used, for example, it produces no concrete pollution or greenhouse gases. The byproduct, rather, is simply water.

There are a couple of hurdles that have to be overcome before hydrogen fuel cells become a viable energy system. The technology is such that the fuel cells are much too big and heavy to be used for practical purposes. The infamous hydrogen car isn't currently viable due to this, although evaluation cars from primarily German producers are being evaluated. The next problem is efficiency, which is to say fuel cells aren't. Currently, fuel cells produce energy at a cost of approximately ten times that of fossil fuels, and that's a positive estimate. Again, not a feasible alternative.

While these might seem like significant hurdles, they really point to the viability of hydrogen fuel cells as a power source. These issues are concentrated on technical aspects of delivery, not on whether the procedure works. If there's anything we're good at as a species, then it's making technological breakthroughs. If we can construct a hydrogen atomic weapon, then surely we can build a hydrogen fuel cell.