Blue Sky Power

Fuel Cells

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe.

It is a building block of water and all living things. It is also the simplest, lightest element, consisting of only one proton and one electron. Although hydrogen is all around us, it is rarely found in its free-floating or elemental form. It combines with other elements to make such things as water, sugars, and carbohydrates.

A fuel cell uses the chemical energy of hydrogen to cleanly and efficiently produce electricity, with water and heat as byproducts. Fuel cells are unique in terms of the variety of their potential applications; they can provide energy for systems as large as a utility power station and as small as a laptop computer.

Fuel cells have several benefits over conventional combustion-based technologies currently used in many power plants and passenger vehicles. They produce much smaller quantities of greenhouse gases and none of the air pollutants that create smog and cause health problems. If pure hydrogen is used as a fuel, fuel cells emit only heat and water as a byproduct.

How Fuel Cells Generate Power

A fuel cell is a device that uses hydrogen (or hydrogen-rich fuel) and oxygen to create electricity by an electrochemical process. A single fuel cell consists of an electrolyte and two catalyst-coated electrodes (a porous anode and cathode). While there are different fuel cell types, all work on the same principle:

Hydrogen, or a hydrogen-rich fuel, is fed to the anode where a catalyst separates hydrogen's negatively charged electrons from positively charged ions (protons). At the cathode, oxygen combines with electrons and, in some cases, with species such as protons or water, resulting in water or hydroxide ions, respectively. For polymer electrolyte membrane and phosphoric acid fuel cells, protons move through the electrolyte to the cathode to combine with oxygen and electrons, producing water and heat. For alkaline, molten carbonate, and solid oxide fuel cells, negative ions travel through the electrolyte to the anode where they combine with hydrogen to generate water and electrons. The electrons from the anode side of the cell cannot pass through the electrolyte to the positively charged cathode; they must travel around it via an electrical circuit to reach the other side of the cell. This movement of electrons is an electrical current.

Economics and Future Prospects

Fuel cells are projected to grow faster than other clean energy sources such as solar, biofuels, and wind power through 2017. The fuel cell sector is expected to grow eleven-fold from $1.5 billion in 2007 to approximately $16 billion by 2017. That is a 27% Compounded Annual Growth Rate, as opposed to the solar, biofuels and wind sectors, which are only projected to grow during the same period at annual rates of 14%, 12% and 11%, respectively. Factors which will be instrumental in the growth of the fuel cell market are government incentives that encourage adoption of clean energy technologies, the significantly increased efficiency of fuel cells with combined heat and power (CHP) applications, soaring electricity prices and the growing public demand for clean energy.

Stationary fuel cells used in power stations, microgrids and CHP applications will account for almost half of the total demand for fuel cells. The market size for on-site power generation using fuel cells is expected to grow sixty-fold to approximately $7 billion in 2014 from $118 million in 1999.

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