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What is Fuel Cell Technology?

By Jami Yontz
Updated May 17, 2024
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Fuel cell technology is the use of fuel cells to produce electricity to power motors. Fuel cells come in a variety of types, and each type can be utilized to power different types of objects, such as transportation vehicles or large generators. Fuel cell technology has come to the forefront of energy technology as an alternative source.

A fuel cell produces electricity through a conversion of oxygen and hydrogen to water. Through the transfer of the electrons contained within hydrogen to the cell, direct current electricity is created and directed to a motor. One of the major advantages of using fuel cells to create electricity is that the by-products of the process are only water and heat, whereas using fossil fuels for energy creates pollution and waste. Also, a fuel cell does not need to be recharged as long as it has hydrogen and oxygen to convert to energy, but it cannot store energy like a battery can.

There are five major types of fuel cells: phosphoric acid, molten carbonate, solid oxide, alkali and proton exchange membrane. Each type has been used to power a variety of objects, and each has its own advantages and shortcomings for use in energy production. Research is still being conducted on how best to utilize the energy produced and how to create cost-effective ways to use the cells.

In the US in the 1960s, the Apollo spacecrafts created by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) used alkali fuel cells to provide energy, heat and a water supply to the space crew. An alkali fuel cell is the least expensive type of fuel cell technology to produce, and its efficiency is around 70 percent. Molten carbonate fuel cells are extremely high-temperature cells, and new technology is being developed for their application in power plants, or to power towns or large factories. Since these cells can reach up to 1,200°F (about 650°C), the waste heat can be recycled for energy use.

Phosphoric acid is being used in fuel cell technology to power small generators in commercial buildings. It also has been effective in powering larger vehicles, such as buses. Phosphoric acid fuel cells were the first type to be used on a large commercial scale.

Proton exchange membrane fuel cells have been shown to be useful for energy production in cars or homes. The lower amount of heat required for these fuel cells allows them to be used more quickly, and they are safer for use around other mechanical parts. Storing enough hydrogen in a passenger car for long-distance travel, however, has been an impediment to using proton exchange membrane cells for fuel cell technology.

Solid oxide fuel cells are another type of cell that operate at a high temperature and are used in large generators. These types of cells are capable of creating a large amount of energy and are highly efficient. The drawback, however, is that the high amount of heat required to produce the electricity requires a company to put in many safety and operational shields, which can result in added expense.

Fuel cell technology is still too expensive to act as an alternative or replacement for batteries in small-scale electronics or devices. The technology continues to advance, however, especially as an energy supply for vehicles. Pressure from governments and environmental agencies has increased the incentive to reduce the reliance on fossil fuels and gas for a country’s supply of energy, and many are turning to fuel cell technology for solutions.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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