What Are Hydrogen Fuel Cells?


Hydrogen fuel cells are a revolutionary technology that dates to the early 1800s. However, fuel cells have only been used in any serious capacity since the 1960s. Since then, fuel cells have been researched and refined in the hope that their use will become commonplace, resulting in a clean, efficient source of energy.


  • A fuel cell generates electricity through an electrochemical reaction in which oxygen and a fuel--hydrogen is the most common--combine, forming water. Types of fuel cells vary, but they all have a similar design. The electricity produced by a fuel cell can be used to power a variety of devices, from vehicles--both large and small--to portable, hand-held devices. They can also be used to power and heat buildings.


  • The fuel cell concept was first discovered by the German scientist Christian Friedrich Schönbein. In 1838, Schönbein published his ideas in a scientific journal. In 1839, Welsh scientist Sir William Robert Grove invented the Grove cell, an electrical cell powered by zinc and platinum electrodes exposed to acid. Grove continued his experiments, and in 1842 introduced the first fuel cell, called the gas voltaic battery, using hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity. Grove's design was similar to today's fuel cell designs.
    Despite the early discoveries of Schönbein and Grove, the fuel cell was largely considered a curiosity and little research was done to further the idea. However, during the 20th century, the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) and the U.S. military began looking for new, reliable sources of power, renewing interesting in fuel cell technology.

Fuel Cells Vs. Batteries

  • Fuel cells are different from batteries. A battery stores and releases chemical energy. Over time, it will run out of power and must be recharged or disposed of. A hydrogen fuel cell produces energy by combining hydrogen with oxygen. Therefore, a fuel cell will continue to function and produce power as long as fuel and oxygen are supplied.

Why Should We Use Fuel Cells?

  • Existing fossil fuels will not last forever, and pollution caused by these fuels has been an increasing problem. Vehicles, particularly automobiles, are a major producer of air pollution. A major benefit of fuel cells is they generate electricity while producing little or no pollution. The hydrogen and oxygen used to generate electricity combine to form a harmless byproduct: water.
    For the residential and business sector, fuel cells can provide heat and electricity, resulting in considerable financial savings. Also, fuel cells can provide a safe and reliable source of power to buildings in rural areas, eliminating the need for unreliable and perhaps dangerous power generators.
    For portable products, fuel cells could provide much longer life and easier recharging.
    For the military, fuel cells can provide an extremely reliable source of energy for vehicles and equipment. Fuels cells are also quiet and produce little heat, providing further benefits to military units.

Current Uses of Fuel Cells

  • Hydrogen fuel cell use is still in the early stages, but fuel cells are in limited use for the cars, public transportation, boats, specialty vehicles (forklifts), stationary power units and some hand-held electronics.

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