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First invented in 1839 by William Grove, a fuel cell is an electrochemical energy conversion device that produces electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen into water. Like batteries, fuel cells convert potential chemical energy into electrical energy and generate heat as a by-product. However, the chemical energy is stored inside batteries—rather than generated— they can only operate for a limited duration until they need to be discarded or recharged. Fuel cells, on the other hand, can continuously generate electricity as long as they are supplied with fuel (hydrogen) and an oxidant.
Fuel cells can be used anywhere you need power. In 2016, more than 65,000 fuel cells, totaling over 300 MW, were shipped worldwide. Continued growth in fuel cell usage has been encouraged by governmental green energy programs and tax credits in China, Europe, Japan and the USA.
Leading companies such as Apple, Verizon and Coca-Cola are generating power with stationary, hydrogen fuel cells. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles from Toyota, Honda and other companies are coming to market and metropolitan areas are beginning to migrate to clean hydrogen-fuel buses. Hydrogen refilling stations in California and other states are overcoming the challenges of hydrogen distribution for consumers. Indeed, the US Department of Energy notes that hydrogen and fuel cells are on the verge of a “tipping point” much like solar energy was a number of years ago.
Fuel cells are characterized by the type of electrolytes used to separate the fuel cell electrodes. Since different materials are electrolytic at different temperature levels, fuel cells are classified as low temperature, medium temperature and high temperature.
There are five primary types of fuel cells:
• Alkaline Fuel Cells (low temperature)• Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel Cells (low temperature)• Phosphoric Acid Fuel Cells (medium temperature)• Molten Carbonate Fuel Cells (high temperature)• Solid Oxide Fuel Cells (high temperature)
Each type of fuel cell has its own inherent strengths and weaknesses that make them more suitable for specific markets and applications.
For more information about fuel cells, download our white paper, “The Big Deal With Fuel Cells.”