What is a fuel cell?
A fuel cell is a device that produces electricity through an electrochemical process within the fuel cell itself. This is very similar to the way a battery produces electricity. However, unlike a battery, a fuel cell only produces electricity while fuel is supplied to it. As a result, the fuel cell behaves much like an electrical generator driven by an internal combustion engine that uses conventional fossil fuel. You may have heard of the fuel cells that power the Space Shuttle electrical systems. A chemical reaction occurs at relatively low temperatures inside the fuel cell, and no combustion takes place. The primary fuel used in fuel cells is hydrogen. When hydrogen is supplied, the chemical reaction, between hydrogen and air produces electricity, pure water and some heat. Again, similar to an engine-generator, the electrical power output is proportional to the rate of fuel flowing into the fuel cell, and is limited by the physical size of the fuel cell. There are five primary types of fuel cells, each distinguished by the type of the electrolyte that is used to carry electrical charge between the fuel and the oxygen in the air.
Because fuel cells produce power without combustion, they are considerably more efficient than their internal combustion engine counterparts. Gasoline engines in automobiles are approximately 13 to 25 percent efficient. Amazingly, 75 to 87 percent of the gasoline you purchase does not participate in moving your automobile. A fuel cell attached to an electric motor can be in excess of 40 percent efficient, and fuel cells that can be used in automobiles and other vehicles are being produced with efficiencies of 45 to 58 percent.
What can fuel cells do?
Fuel cells produce electricity directly from hydrogen fuel. They can be used with anything that requires power in the form of electricity, rotary power or heat. A very important trait exhibited by fuel cell technologies is that they can be made small enough to power a cellular phone or large enough to power a village or skyscraper without significantly changing the design. The markets for fuel cells are virtually unlimited. Examples of major applications include all ground or surface vehicles, such as cars, utility vehicles, trains and motorcycles. There are also applications in power production, such as commercial utility power, premium power, backup power, remote power and portable power production. In fact, by their nature, fuel cells permit us to move towards a more distributed method of electrical power generation, with less need for expensive power transmission infrastructure.
Invented in 1839, fuel cells have only recently gained attention by being employed to produce electricity and water in all our Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle missions. What once was exotic technology is becoming commonplace.
Why are fuel cells important?
From 1990 to 2000, the interest in fuel cells has increased dramatically. Once almost unknown ten years ago, today every major automobile company in the United States, Europe and Asia has a serious fuel cell program. In January 2000, General Motors debuted its hydrogen, fuel cell powered concept car called the Precept. It is expected to have a hydrogen refueling range of 500 miles and accelerate zero to 60 MPH in about nine seconds. Additionally, more than 100 fuel cells large enough to power small buildings or neighborhoods have been commercially produced and deployed throughout the world. The generation of today's children will be drivers of fuel cell powered cars, and will see the purchase and use of a zero-polluting, high-performance vehicle as commonplace.
It is reasonable to expect that fuel cell systems could replace most power-producing devices in the world over the next 40 to 80 years. Clearly, the market potential for such an endeavor is in the trillions of dollars. The fuel cell has recently been termed the "micro-chip of the energy industry", in relation to its economic potential. Two important advantages of fuel cells are that they do not produce polluting emissions or greenhouse gases, and do not require supplies of foreign oil.
We envision a world where the geopolitical distribution of the world's fossil energy sources no longer causes the economic instability that creates turmoil within and among nations on a regular basis. The commercialization of fuel cell power systems is beginning to bring about that eventuality.
Wide scale marketing and use of fuel cells enables the global-scale implementation of renewable energy technologies and hydrogen as a fuel. Early on, fuel cells can be fueled from hydrogen made from conventional sources like fossil fuels. Today, almost all our hydrogen is made from natural gas. The hydrogen used in the Space Shuttle for its main rocket engines and for its electrical power is made from natural gas in Mississippi. Industries such as Third Orbit Power Systems, Inc. are creating the economically-driven transition to sustainable energy sources for hydrogen, rapidly moving us to a more secure, cleaner energy future.
What are the commercial implications?
Just like any new technology, the best early market applications for fuel cells are in the small, high value niche markets. Economies of scale and other drivers will expand the market and drive further development, in turn expanding markets. All this is still subject to traditional “valley of death syndrome” issues in new business and technology development. However, the level of development and international interest to date assures that fuel cells will play a significant role in nations’ economies throughout the 21st century. The automobile is one of the most difficult markets for the fuel cell and likely will be one of the last sustainable markets into which they will be introduced. Third Orbit Power Systems, Inc. has developed a unique methodology for determining the best choices for successful entry into new market areas for fuel cells and their systems. This will be an extremely important tool as new companies come and go in this dynamically growing industry.