As part of my continuing Environmental Series, posted usually each Sunday, today I'm covering the Science and Tech behind Fuel Cells. A very recent Break-Through may make this Renewable Energy "storage media" much more of an "affordable" solution, much quicker than many realize.

First the Tech -- let's start with a Picture or two.  I like pictures; they tend to make the complex -- simpler.

How Hydrogen Fuel Cells Work
by Bill Siuru, greencar.com -- 12/18/2007

Oxygen and Hydrogen go in ... a charged circuit of Electricity comes out.  

Enough power to even power this:

so far so good ...  

Here's the Science and Chemistry that makes "Fuel Cell" Go -- basically they are rechargeable Batteries, that take Hydrogen gas and Oxygen gas, and turn them into Electricity -- lots of it.

How Fuel Cells Work
By Peter Tyson, NOVA ScienceNOW, pbs.org -- 07.01.2005

On paper, the workings of a hydrogen fuel cell sound straightforward enough: An electrochemical reaction occurs between hydrogen and oxygen that converts chemical energy into electrical energy.

Think of them as big batteries, but ones that only operate when fuel -- in this case, pure hydrogen -- is supplied to them. When it is, an electrochemical reaction takes place between the hydrogen and oxygen that directly converts chemical energy into electrical energy. Various types of fuel cells exist, but the one automakers are primarily focusing on for fuel cell cars is one that relies on a proton-exchange membrane, or PEM. [...] In the simple reaction that occurs here rests the hope of engineers, policymakers, and ordinary citizens that someday we'll drive entirely pollution-free cars.

Here's what happens in the fuel cell: When hydrogen gas pumped from the fuel tanks arrives at the anode, which is made of platinum, the platinum catalyzes a reaction that ionizes the gas. Ionization breaks the hydrogen atom down into its positive ions (hydrogen protons) and negative ions (electrons). [...] The electrons are forced to go around the PEM, and along the way they are shunted through a circuit, generating the electricity that runs the car's systems.

So the main problem with the Fuel Cell tech is that it, until recently relies on very expensive Platinum, to directly "convert chemical energy into electrical energy" -- foregoing the Petro-Carbon footprint, of conventional fuels.

Many companies have been searching for new ways of doing this -- without the Platinum -- including these University Nano-tech researchers ...

US researchers claim breakthrough in Hydrogen Fuel Cell tech
commodityonline.com -- 24 March 2011

Researchers at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland say catalysts made of carbon nanotubes dipped in a polymer solution can outperform traditional platinum catalysts in fuel cells at a fraction of the cost.

The scientists say the new technology can remove one of the biggest roadblocks to widespread cell use: the cost of the catalysts.

Platinum, which represents at least a quarter of the cost of fuel cells, currently sells for about $30,000 per pound, while the activated carbon nanotubes cost about $45 per pound, a Case release said Tuesday.

Well just a few days ago the U.S. Dept of Energy, specifically Los Alamos National Laboratory, in New Mexico, announced they have solved the Platinum Catalyst problem -- using much cheaper, and equally reliable and efficient substitute materials.

This is a big deal!

Discovery Could Make Fuel Cells Much Cheaper
By Chuck Squatriglia,  wired.com autopia -- April 22, 2011

One of the biggest issues with hydrogen fuel cells, aside from the lack of fueling infrastructure, is the high cost of the technology. Fuel cells use a lot of platinum, which is frightfully expensive and one reason we’ll pay $50,000 or so for the hydrogen cars automakers say we’ll see in 2015.

That might soon change. Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory have developed a platinum-free catalyst in the cathode of a hydrogen fuel cell that uses carbon, iron and cobalt. That could make the catalysts “two to three orders of magnitude cheaper,” the lab says, thereby significantly reducing the cost of fuel cells.

Although the discovery means we could see hydrogen fuel cells in a wide variety of applications, it could have the biggest implications for automobiles.

Hydrogen offers the benefits of battery-electric vehicles -- namely zero tailpipe emissions -- without the drawbacks of short range and long recharge times. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are electric vehicles; they use a fuel cell instead of a battery to provide juice. You can fill a car with hydrogen in minutes, it’ll go about 250 miles or so and the technology is easily adapted to everything from forklifts to automobiles to buses.

Fuel Cells can power even a Bus -- Incredible!

Los Alamos National Laboratory Researchers -- those public employees -- describe the technical benefits of their recent Science discovery:

Say Hello to Cheaper Hydrogen Fuel Cells

Los Alamos scientists document utility of non-precious-metal catalysts

LOS ALAMOS, New Mexico, News Release -- April 22, 2011

In a paper published today in Science, Los Alamos [National Laboratory] researchers Gang Wu, Christina Johnston, and Piotr Zelenay, joined by researcher Karren More of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, describe the use of a platinum-free catalyst in the cathode of a hydrogen fuel cell. Eliminating platinum -- a precious metal more expensive than gold -- would solve a significant economic challenge that has thwarted widespread use of large-scale hydrogen fuel cell systems.

The Los Alamos researchers developed non-precious-metal catalysts for the part of the fuel cell that reacts with oxygen. The catalysts -- which use carbon (partially derived from polyaniline in a high-temperature process), and inexpensive iron and cobalt instead of platinum -- yielded high power output, good efficiency, and promising longevity. The researchers found that fuel cells containing the carbon-iron-cobalt catalyst synthesized by Wu not only generated currents comparable to the output of precious-metal-catalyst fuel cells, but held up favorably when cycled on and off -- a condition that can damage inferior catalysts relatively quickly.

Moreover, the carbon-iron-cobalt catalyst fuel cells effectively completed the conversion of hydrogen and oxygen into water, rather than producing large amounts of undesirable hydrogen peroxide. Inefficient conversion of the fuels, which generates hydrogen peroxide, can reduce power output by up to 50 percent, and also has the potential to destroy fuel cell membranes. Fortunately, the carbon-iron-cobalt catalysts synthesized at Los Alamos create extremely small amounts of hydrogen peroxide, even when compared with state-of-the-art platinum-based oxygen-reduction catalysts.

[Project funding for the Los Alamos research came from the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) Office as well as from Los Alamos National Laboratory’s  Laboratory-Directed Research and Development program.]

Who's says investing in Science R&D -- Can't pay off with huge dividends?
(The GOP Austerity Hawks, that's who.)

Well, if Fuel Cells are suddenly to become affordable in a matter of the next few years

-- What about the Fuel?

Where does one go to get a Tankful of H2 ???

Well, thankfully those Govt Scientists are busily trying to "solve the Hydrogen Fuel Supply Problem, as well ...

It seems the Hydrogen can be captured from a wide variety of sources, including many with very low Carbon footprints ...

Hydrogen Production and Delivery -- nrel.gov

NREL: National Renewable Energy Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE)

Most of the hydrogen in the United States is produced by steam reforming of natural gas. For the near term, this production method will continue to dominate. Researchers at NREL are developing advanced processes to produce hydrogen economically from sustainable resources. These R&D efforts include:

-- Fermentation

NREL scientists are developing expertise with pretreatment technologies convert lignocellulosic biomass into sugar-rich feedstocks including hemicelluloses and cellulose that can be fermented directly to produce hydrogen, ethanol, and high-value chemicals.  [...]

-- Biological Water Splitting

Certain photosynthetic microbes produce hydrogen from water in their metabolic activities using light energy. [...]

-- Photoelectrochemical Water Splitting

The cleanest way to produce hydrogen is by using sunlight to directly split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Multijunction cell technology developed by the photovoltaic industry is being used [...]

-- Conversion of Biomass and Wastes

Hydrogen can be produced via pyrolysis or gasification of biomass resources such as agricultural residues like peanut shells; consumer wastes including plastics and waste grease  [...]

-- Solar Thermal Water Splitting

NREL researchers have demonstrated that highly concentrated sunlight can be used to generate the high temperatures needed to split methane into hydrogen and carbon. Concentrated solar energy can also be used [...]

-- Renewable Electrolysis

Renewable energy sources such as photovoltaics, wind, biomass, hydro, and geothermal can provide clean and sustainable electricity for our nation. However, renewable energy sources are naturally variable, requiring energy storage [...] One solution is to produce hydrogen through the electrolysis [...]

So, Hydrogen has not only the potential to get us off of Foreign Oil, it also has the potential to provide a simple "portable" Storage Media, for collecting and saving all that energy created by wind farms, and solar plants, and even Bio-fuels.

There is even a Project in Sacramento demonstrating the feasibility of converting Solar to Hydrogen, to fill up and power Fuel-Cell vehicles ...

Cool.  Very cool.

Solar Driven Hydrogen Refueling Station in Sacramento
cheetahpower.net -- February 15, 2009

[Demonstration Refueling Station for Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars]

Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) is participating in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Controlled Hydrogen Fleet and Infrastructure Demonstration and Validation Project. Ford and Daimler-Chrysler -- provided the prototype cars -- and BP, installed and operate the hydrogen station refueling equipment. [...]

The solar panels make electricity, which is then used to convert water into hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen is produced by electrolysis -- an electric current is used to split water into its components -- hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is then used to power the fuel cells that run the car.

So we keep hearing about how America needs to become Energy Independent using the 21st century Clean, Renewable Energy of the Future.

Isn't it about time we took those warnings to heart, and started SERIOUSLY investing in the Tech and Infrastructure

-- that it will take, to take these high-tech break-throughs, from off of the Drawing Boards, and onto our Drive-ways?

It's long past time, if you asked me.  

What are we waiting for?  ... a written invitation from the Oil Companies ???

Originally posted to Digging up those Facts ... for over 8 years. on Sun Apr 24, 2011 at 05:58 AM PDT.

Also republished by SciTech.

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