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Fuel Cell Energy
What do you think of when you hear “Fuel Cell Energy”?
You think of cars, don’t you? At least I did. Because mostly I hear about fuel cells in connection to future energy for cars.
German carmakers are investing millions or even billions in creating a working and efficient fuel cell for their automobiles.
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So what is a Fuel Cell and how does it create energy?
Well, in the end the fuel cell is a ‘live’ battery. ‘Live’ meaning that that it needs a flow of fuel to create energy, while a battery has the energy stored and ready to use. So a fuel cell either is fueled by a tank – as your car is – or by connecting it to the – say – gas grid.
But the principle is the same: in a battery the energy is stored by having a kind of divider between to normally reacting substances or elements. It is like lifting a weight. As long as you hold the weight up in the air, it has stored – in this case called ‘kinetic’ – energy (potential). Once you let it go, it will fall down and have some energy – speed – on impact on the ground.
A battery is the same principle. Two substances which would love to have a chemical reaction with each other – chemical energy – are kept from reacting with each other by an electrolyte.
This electrolyte controls the chemical reaction and makes the flow of electrons from this reaction useable – electricity.
A fuel cell is like a battery with a constant supply of reactant (chemicals), meaning that the two chemicals “wanting” to react with each other are constantly added, so that the power is recreated all the time. And unlike batteries, fuel cells can be quickly refueled, so eliminating the time needed for swapping batteries – and cost.
You could say that a normal battery is a closed thermodynamic system and a fuel cell is an open thermodynamic system.
The first fuel cell was invented in 1838 by a German scientist. Their first real life usage was in NASA programs since the 1950s.
Since then, about six different types of fuel cells have been developed. The type most suitable today for hydrogen fuel is called ‘PEM’ (proton exchange membrane).
A big problem of most state of the art fuel cells is that they need expensive materials like platinum or corrosive acids to work. This makes them still pretty expensive or maintenance-intensive.
Fuel Cell Energy Breakthrough
Scientists agree that the most promising technology for fuel cell energy is the so called ‘Solid Oxide Fuel Cell’, which has the ability to work with differnt kinds of fuel, not only pure hydrogen.
A very innovative company called ‘Bloom Energy‘ has optimized this fuel cell and is beginning to have great successes. Google was their first customer. Now Wal Mart, FedEx, Ebay and others are staring to use their technology to improve their carbon footprint and become green.
Bloom Energy’s CEOs are speaking very positively about Bloom’s products.
Btw: In the US, Fuel cells are now eligible for a Federal tax credit up to $3,000/kW