Original Post Date: Thursday, December 23, 2010

A current research interest of mine is fuel cells – where they are being used and what it costs to manufacture fuel cell systems.  I thought I would share some of what I’ve learned to date.

A fuel cell is an electrochemical cell which converts some fuel, usually hydrogen, into electric current.  It does this through a reaction between the fuel and an oxidant in the presence of an electrolyte.  The waste product of this chemical process is water and heat.  Fuel cells, unlike conventional batteries, consume reactant from an external source rather than one stored in the battery.  Because of this they require a continuous supply of fuel but in the presence of this continuous supply they will not run out of charge like a conventional battery.
Because fuel cells require neither flame nor combustion to convert fuel to electricity, there is much hope that they will become the power source of the future as we try to reduce our carbon footprint.  Unfortunately, fuel cells have yet to be widely used because they have yet to be cost effective in any wide spread way.   And while there has been talk for years about the promise of fuel cell powered cars – this also has not come to fruition because of the costs of the fuel cell and the lack of infrastructure to support hydrogen refueling.

There are some areas where fuel cells are gaining purchase.  Fuel cell power is very reliable and not as likely to be subject to effects of environment and weather as conventional power delivery systems.  Because of this they are being adopted in industries such as the telecom industry where outages can be problematic.  They are also used for power generation in remote areas where energy from the grid is expensive.  Because heat is a waste product of the electricity generation process, micro combined heat and power systems are gaining in popularity for residential and small business uses.   Other interesting uses of fuel cell power include material handling (forklifts and such), backup power systems and uninterruptable power systems.

Portable power is also an interesting application for fuel cells.  The Medis 24/7 power pack is a commercially available fuel cell power system for recharging laptops, cell phones and iPods.  It lasts for hours and is approved for use on aircrafts.  Portable power for soldiers in the battlefield is often supplied with fuel cells which traditionally weigh less and last longer than conventional batteries.

This research is on-going.  There is still lots to learn.  Check back here for more information as it unfolds.  If you have any experience with fuel cells, especially with costs of fuel cells, feel free to share.