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Fuel Cells – A Brief Introduction

Since their invention in the mid 19th Century, fuel cells have been used across a wide range of applications, including commercial and residential buildings, hospitals, transportation, and of course, the aerospace industry.
However, modern advances over the past few decades have rendered modern fuel cells virtually unrecognizable from their century-old predecessors. These innovations in fuel cell technology have caused fuel cells to gain a new level of interest as reliable sources of power, specifically in vertical market segments such as space flight, transportation, aerospace/defense, and for medical services.

The History of Fuel Cells

The first fuel cell was invented in 1839 by a Welsh physicist named Sir William Robert Grove. Grove created the first fuel cell by mixing hydrogen and oxygen in the presence of electrolytes. The result produced both electricity and water. However, his invention wasn’t a resounding success, as it failed to produce enough electricity to be useful.
Nearly a century later in 1932, engineer Francis Thomas Bacon produced the first practical hydrogen-oxygen fuel cell by innovating upon Grove’s design. By 1959, Bacon had perfected his design and demonstrated its effectiveness by using a five-kilowatt fuel cell to power a welding machine. Bacon dubbed his invention the “Bacon Cell.”
The principles of Bacon’s design would go on to be utilized by General Electrics in the early 1960s to power electrical systems in NASAs Gemini and Apollo space capsules. By the mid-1990s, Daimler-Benz and Toyota began producing prototypes for fuel cell-powered automobiles.

How do Fuel Cells Work?

Fuel cells are similar to batteries but are different in one distinct way. While batteries need recharging to continually operate, fuel cells can produce electricity and heat via chemical reaction for as long as fuel is provided.
At their most rudimentary, fuel cells are electrochemical devices that are comprised of four main components; two electrodes (called the anode and the cathode), an electrolyte, and a catalyst.
In a hydrogen fuel cell, the hydrogen is supplied to the anode, while air is supplied to the cathode. The catalyst separates the hydrogen molecules into protons and electrons, which both take divergent paths to the cathode. The electrons go through an external circuit of the power cell, forming a flow of electricity. The remaining protons migrate through the electrolyte to the cathode, where they combine with electrons and oxygen to create heat and water.
Fuel cells are particularly useful because they create electricity through a chemical process, rather than through combustion. Because of this, they are not subject to the laws of thermodynamics and are more efficient at extracting energy from the fuel.
Typically, a single fuel cell produces 0.6-0.8V under load. High voltages are thus obtained by connecting several fuel cells in a series.

Fuel Cells for the Future

Presently, fuel cells have gained a renewed level of interest, and are currently being used to replace battery banks, diesel generators in office buildings, and even to operate forklifts in warehouses, as fuel cells are more compact, efficient, and require minimal maintenance. In addition, fuel cells are increasingly becoming an exceedingly popular option for power because they produce much smaller quantities of greenhouse gases than other alternatives, and also do not produce any air pollutants that contribute to smog and health problems.
Stationary fuel cells have been used for the past two decades as both primary sources of power, and to provide supplemental power as well. Combined Heat and Power (CHP) fuel cells are currently being used extensively for residential purposes in Japan, with over 10,000 units being deployed to provide home power and heating.
Uninterruptible Power Systems (UPS) stationary fuel cells are currently being used in a wide variety of different sectors, most notably off-line short run-time systems in telecommunication base stations, critical communications base stations, data centers, and for residential use. UPS stationary fuel cells provide a reliable and consistent supply of power in the event of disrupted grid operation.
Research is still being carried out by the U.S. Department of Energy, global academics, power providers and venture-funded start ups to improve upon current fuel cells designs, in terms of costs, performance, and durability for the future.
NPI’s core competency of turnkey project management for low volume, complex box builds provides an efficient personalized solution to meet the needs of fuel cell system innovators. For more information about the services NPI provides to fuel cell innovators please contact us
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