White Papers

Introduction to Fuel Cell Technology


Fuel cells are electrochemical devices that convert chemical energy directly into electrical energy. All types are based on the same principles and have four basic components: electrolyte, anode, cathode, and interconnect. The different fuel cell types are categorized according to their electrolyte since it determines key features such as operating temperature, power-up time, type of fuel, migrating ions, and shock resistance. Fuel cells are generally utilized for secondary power generation, since in cases where they are not using fossil fuels ¨C a possibility only for high temperature fuel cells ¨C pure hydrogen has to be generated by using primary energy sources.Working fuel cell systems have already been developed by many companies in the automobile, electronics, and power generation industries. These systems have to be improved before they can compete on the market with existing technologies, by extending their lifetime and significantly reducing their cost. Two high temperature (solid oxide and molten carbonate) and two low temperature (polymer electrolyte and direct methanol) fuel cells are discussed in more detail, with a focus on the materials and the electrochemical reaction.

At this point, the quest for alternative energy sources has to proceed without focusing on a single energy technology, but rather following a parallel strategy and letting the new technologies compete before widespread replacement of fossil fuels.

We will provide a summary of four of the most popular fuel cell types: solid oxide, molten carbonate, proton-exchange membrane, and direct methanol fuel cells (DMFCs), with a focus on materials, mechanism of operation, and an evaluation of advantages and disadvantages. William R. Grove, the fuel cell pioneer could only harvest a very small current from his apparatus that was not enough to provide power for everyday use. Only in the last few decades there have been major breakthrough improvements in the design and materials of fuel cells that the technology is now approaching commercialization, attracting increasing attention from the world of business rather than just academia. These improvements are reviewed here to demonstrate the cutting edge of today¡¯s research.

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