Volume Two - Issue Three
A fuel cell is an electrochemical energy conversion device that converts hydrogen and oxygen into electricity and heat. Fuel cells are similar to batteries in that they can be recharged while you are drawing power from it. Unlike batteries, fuel cells are more environmentally friendly and can be engineered to provide weight, size and performance benefits that batteries can not. It is expected that fuel cells will compete with other energy conversion devices, including the gas turbine, the gasoline engine and the battery as our need for electricity continues to increase. There are several different types of fuel cells that are generally classified by the type of electrolyte they use. Some types of fuel cells show promise for use in power generation plants. Others may be useful for small portable applications or for powering cars.
The proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell is one of the most promising technologies. PEM fuel cells operate at relatively low temperatures (80°C), which means that they warm up quickly and don't require expensive containment structures. Constant improvements in engineering and in the materials used in these cells have increased the power density to a level where a device about the size of a small piece of luggage can power a car.
There are other types of fuel cell technologies being developed for possible commercial uses. These include:
cell makers are looking to capitalize on "distributed generation".
For environmental and political reasons, the construction of new electric
power plants and transmission lines has become very difficult. As the
demand for electric power grows and with electricity deregulation taking
shape in many states, analysts argue that small power plants located near
the point of demand may provide cost effective ways to augment the existing
electric infrastructure. Wind turbines, photovoltaics, and fuel cells
are all being viewed as good candidates for distributed generation. However,
economic analyst Peter Schwartz, author of "Future of the Global
Economy-Towards a Long Boom," recently noted that, "most likely
the fuel cell will be the power source of the next half century".
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