Fuel Cells and the Distributed Power Paradigm

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Fuel Cells and the Distributed Power Paradigm

In past issues, the Trends editors have given you insights into the overall energy picture in the United States and worldwide.  For example, we have examined oil and coal — there's plenty of both — and shown how many of the faddish alternative energy sources, such as wind power, are simply not up to the task of supplying the world's energy needs in the first half of the 21st century. 

We've also looked far ahead into the future, where fusion power will provide a virtually limitless supply of cheap, clean energy.  Real progress is being made in that area — with the most important research being done at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's National Ignition Facility, a fully-functional laser fusion installation that is poised to demonstrate the first production of net energy from a thermonuclear reaction.1 

However, we'll still need a technology in the time frame of 10 to 30 years to fill the gaps where all of the foregoing technologies fall short.  The Trends editors argue that a new generation of fuel cells uniquely addresses this challenge.

Conceptually, the fuel cell is nothing new.  The idea was first put forth in  research published by a German chemist in 1838.  The first working fuel cell was built in 1839 by a physical scientist from Wales.  It wasn't until the mid-1950s, however, that a fuel was developed by chemists at General Electric that had the potential for practical uses. 

Working with the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, GE continued to refine the technology, and it was adopted by NASA beginning with its Gemini missions in 1965 and '66.  This was the first time that fuel cells found a practical application.  Unfortunately, those early fuel cells were too expensive for most everyday uses, such as powering the lights and appliances in homes and offices. 

Nevertheless, the race was on to bring fuel cells into the realm of producing competitively-priced electrical energy on a large scale. 


A fuel cell is deceptively simple.  Like a battery, it contains an electrolyte, an anode, and a cathode.  A source of hydrogen atoms, such as natural gas, is introduced.  Since hydrogen ions are just positively charged protons, they flow through the electrolyte from the anode to the cathode.  The electrons stripped off of the hydrogen atoms are directed to an external circuit, which produces electricity.  At the cathode, the hydrogen combines with oxygen, producing water. 

This is similar to what happens in a battery, except that a battery has a self-contained — and therefore limited — fuel supply...

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