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Fuel Cells

Fuel cells are a special type of galvanic cells. They can be fueled by solid, liquid, or gaseous fuel. The electrochemical oxidation of the fuel is coupled to energy gain, which is captured in form of electricity – as opposed to heat during chemical oxidation. Hence, fuel cells are direct energy converters with high efficiency. Most fuel cells achieve an energy conversion efficiency of 70-90%. If the conversion is 100%, no waste heat is produced. This ideal case of energy conversion is called ‘cold combustion’ which has been demonstrated for the first time in 1955 by Justi & Winsel. The fuel for this process is hydrogen gas, H2. It enters a porous nickel tube (gas diffusion electrode) where it is dissociated into protons and electrons according to:

H2 → 2 H+ + 2 e

Hydrogen fuel (H2) and oxygen (O2) are pumped into a fuel cell where two electrodes and the electrolyte fuse them to water.

During desorption, each H atom releases a proton (H+) and an electron (e). The electron is discharged onto the electrode, called anode, and the proton into the electrolyte. As a result of the dissociation process, the anode becomes negatively charged. On the second electrode, called cathode, oxygen gas, O2, is then charged with the electron and converted into O2− ions. The cathode becomes positively charged. Both electrodes are submerged in electrolytes which is in most cases a potassium hydroxide, KOH, solution of water. In the electrolyte, cations (H+) and anions (O2−) form water by chemical fusion. Theoretically, the efficiency is 92% accompanied by little waste heat – as opposed to normal combustion where heat of ~3,000ºC is produced.

2 H2 + O2 → H2O

Unlike heat power generators, fuel cells achieve high direct energy conversion efficiency because they avoid the additional step of heat generation. Besides shortcutting heat generation, fuel cells operate without mechanical parts and emit no noise, flue gas, or radioactivity, which puts them in focus of future developments. Due to their high energy efficiency and the high energy density of hydrogen, fuel cells are ideal for electric vehicles. In space flight, fuel cells were first used during Apollo Program between 1968 and 1972, in the Skylab Project 1973, the Apollo-Soyus Program, the Space Shuttle Program, and on board the International Space Station. There, they provide the electrical power for tools and water treatment. One benefit is that the final product of cold combustion in fuel cells is that water is the final product which is used by astronauts on their missions.

There are various types of fuel cells but all have in common that they consist of electrodes for fuel and O2 activation, and electrolytic conductors between these electrodes. Recent variations of fuel cells include methane fuel cells and microbial fuel cells. Due to the high activation energy of methane, methane fuel cells usually operate at high temperature using solid electrolytes. Microbial fuel cells, use microbes as anodic catalyst and organic matter in water as fuel. This makes them ideal for wastewater treatment.

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Fuel Cells Have the Potential to Become the Best Green Energy Alternative to Fossil Fuels

Global warming is – as the name already suggests – a global concern. It causes problems such as sea level rise, more frequent and more severe strms, and longer droughts. Thus, it global warming concerns all of us. To best fight global warming, adopting green energy in your life is the best viable solution.

Green energy is getting more attention today. It helps to reduce our carbon footprint and thus curbing the global warming. Increasing carbon footprint is the main cause for rising temperatures. Moreover, investing in green energy is also a business case generating steady revenue stream without marginal costs. Hence, many governments promote the use of green energy by providing subsidies and teaching people its benefits in their life.

There are many ways green energy is produced, for example, solar energy, wind energy, the energy produced through bio-waste. Fuel cells are a major breakthrough in this regard. They have impacted the production green energy in many ways. They are also convenient to use. As their fuel (hydrogen, methane …) is produced by using electrical energy, they can use a wide range of green sources to produce energy.

What Are Fuel Cells?

A fuel cells is a device that converts chemical energy into electrical energy. The process combines hydrogen and oxygen to produce water& electricity as main products. Fuel cells are somewhat similar batteries. The main difference is that a fuel is supplied without a charge-discharge cycle. Like batteries, fuel cells are portable and can be used with a variety of fuels like ethanol, methanol, methane, and more.

There are different types of fuel cells. But the most popular ones are hydrogen fuel cells that provide a wide range with only some of advantages as follows:

  • The cells are more efficient than conventional methods used to produce energy.
  • They are quiet – unlike, for example combustion engines or turbines
  • Fuel cells eliminate pollution by using hydrogen instead of burning of fossil fuels.
  • Fuel cells have a longer lifespan than batteries because fresh fuel is supplied constantly
  • They use chemical fuels that can be recycled or produced using renewable energy which makes them environmentally friendly.
  • Hydrogen fuel cells are grid-independent and can be used anywhere.

How Do Fuel Cells Work?

A fuel cell produces power by transforming chemical energy into electrical energy in reduction-oxidation processes, much like batteries do. However, unlike batteries, they produce electricity from external supplies of fuel to the anode and oxidants to the cathode. Fuel cells are capable of producing energy as long as the fuel required to produce energy is supplied. Main components of fuel cells are electrolytes that allow for ion exchange. They aid the electro chemical reaction.

Hydrogen, ethanol, methanol, and methane are used as a source of energy. Methane, which is extracted from the subsurface, can be transformed into hydrogen rich stream. With an abundance of the hydrogen in nature, fuel cells seem to be the most viable technology that helps to produce green energy at large scale and at the most affordable cost.

Fuel cells are all set to become the most reliable source of green energy in the near future. They are fuel efficient, so businesses can make the best use of them. At Frontis Energy, we offer a unique selection that helps you build and improve your own fuel cells – be it for research and development or for production.

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How do the fuel cells work as an effective renewable power?

Fuel cells are the devices that convert chemical energy directly into electrical energy. The process combines hydrogen and oxygen produce water& electricity as main products. Fuel cells are similar to batteries in that they produce electricity but also different in that a fuel is supplied without a charge-discharge cycle. Like batteries, they are portable and developed by technological experts. The cells can be used with a variety of fuels like ethanol, methanol, methane, and more.

Here are the advantages of hydrogen fuel cells –

  1. The cells are efficient when compared to the conventional forms of producing energy.
  2. Hydrogen fuel cells operate silently.
  3. Fuel cells eliminate pollution by switching from burning of fossil fuels to hydrogen.
  4. Fuel cells last longer than batteries because they use chemical fuels to produce energy.
  5. Hydrogen fuel cells are grid-independent and can be used anywhere.

Components of Fuel Cells. A fuel cell converts chemical energy into electrical energy, much like a battery. But unlike batteries, they produce electricity from external supplies of fuels to the anode and oxidants to the cathode. Fuel cells can operate virtually continuously as long as the necessary fuel is supplied. Electrolytes are the major components of the fuel cells and keep that allow ion exchange. Fuel cells also have electrodes that are catalysts of the electrical chemical reaction.

Fuel for Fuel Cells. Fuel cells can operate using a variety of fuels like hydrogen, ethanol, methanol, and methane. Fossil fuels like methane are extracted from underground and converted into a hydrogen rich stream. There is also a huge abundant amount of hydrogen in water which can be used for the hydrogen power supply .For higher voltages, fuel cells can be stacked. Fuel cells can power anything from microchips to buses, boats, and buildings.

Fuel Cell Efficiency. The fuel cells are much more efficient than conventional power generation. This is because conventional power is generated be converting chemical energy into heat, mechanical energy and lastly into electrical energy. Fuel cells are converting energy directly into electrical energy and are much more efficient.

Fuels cells are a promising technology and already a source of electricity for buildings and vehicles. The devices operate best with pure hydrogen. In contrast, fossil fuel reserves are in limited and the energy future of the world needs to include several renewable alternatives to our declining resources. Hydrogen is the most abundant element present in the universe and serves as the fuel for nuclear fusion in the sun. Due to this abundance, hydrogen fuel cells are the best green energy source.

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Modern Day Fuel Cells – A Commercially Viable Green Alternative

Today’s companies are developing innovative techniques to use green energy such as fuel cells. There are different types of fuel cells under development, each with its own advantages, limitations, and potential applications. The classification is determined by the kind of electro chemical reactions taking place in the cell, the required kind of catalyst, the temperature range in which the cells operate, the required fuel, and other different factors.

Frontis Energy is an industry expert in fuel cells and electrolysis storage with more than 20 years of experience. We develop innovative environmental technology products and services. Our specialty is bio-fuels and wastewater with innovative solutions at competitive prices.

Fuel cells are clean, reliable, and portable

A fuel cell is a device that uses a source of fuel like hydrogen and an oxidant for creating electricity through electro chemical processes. It converts chemical energy into electrical energy like batteries found under the hoods of automobiles or in flashlights. The basic build-up is very simple. There are in principle two types of configurations which refer to the electrolyte and the two electrodes.

Many combinations of fuels and oxidants are possible in fuel cells. The fuel can be hydrogen, diesel, methanol, natural, etc., and the oxidants can be air, chlorine, or chlorine dioxide, and so forth. But most of today’s fuel cells are using hydrogen. The hydrogen used in fuel cells can be produced by a variety of fuels, including natural gas. A fuel cell splits hydrogen into electrons and protons. Fuel cells have several advantages over other common forms of power. They are cleaner, more efficient, and quiet.

There is no doubt that fuel cells are among the most efficient ways of green energy today. They are a decentralized and Eco-friendly alternative to conventional energy production. As the cost of centralized power rises, the cost of decentralized power continues to fall. Some power professionals believe the days of centralized power are numbered. Today, fuel cells are the best device to convert chemical energy into electrical energy.

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What is the need of Fuel Cell Technology?

Fuel cell technology is one of the best alternatives to fossil fuel combustion because it reduces air pollution affecting the health of millions. Fuel cells use hydrogen and oxygen from air to produce electricity with water being the final product. While the fuel, hydrogen, can be obtained from water, engineers use natural gas to produce most of today’s hydrogen. Nonetheless, a global hydrogen initiative of scientists and engineers has plans to look into renewable and environmental-friendly ways of producing hydrogen in the future.

Fuel cells have various advantages compared to conventional power sources like the internal combustion engines or batteries.

These are the benefits of fuel cells –

  1. Fuel cells have higher efficiency than diesel or gas engines.
  2. Fuel cells work silently and they are ideally suited for use within buildings like commercial constructions.
  3. Fuel cells such as hydrogen fuel cells eliminate pollution caused by burning fossil fuels.
  4. Fuel cell also eliminates greenhouse gases for example, when clean electrolysis of water is used.
  5. Fuel cells do not require conventional fuels like oil or gas (though they can use them) and thus reduce the economic dependence on oil-producing countries.
  6. Fuel cells generate electricity that can be distributed and be grid-dependent.
  7. Stationary fuel cells can be used to generate power at the point of use for small and medium decentralized power grids.
  8. High temperature fuel cells produce process heat that is suited to co-generation applications.
  9. Unlike in batteries, the operation time of fuel cells can be extended by increasing the amount of fuel.

Like a battery, a fuel cell has two electrodes which carry charges from one electrode to the other. The reaction in a single fuel cell produces only about 0.7 volts. However, if the cells are stacked and connected in in series, their voltage increases and they can be used in cars. Scientists and engineers are developing fuel cells that run on wastewater. These so-called microbial fuel cells use microbes to break down organic matter in the wastewater. This fuel cell technology is still requires cost optimization and performance improvements to become fully competitive.

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The Working of Fuel Cells

Fuel cells have a long history but currently experience a revival along with other forms of distributed generation to mitigate the greenhouse effect. They are a special type of galvanic cells which that can be fueled by solid, liquid, or gaseous fuel. The cells produce electricity through chemical reactions without hot combustion. They are there for particularly energy efficient. Most fuel cells convert hydrogen and oxygen into water in a process the leads to the generation of electricity. They are therefore electro chemical conversion devices is producing water, electricity, and small amounts of heat.

How do fuel cells work?

A fuel cell is using the chemical energy of the hydrogen or another fuel to efficiently produce electricity. To build a fuel cell, first make sure which fuel will be used. If hydrogen is the fuel, then electricity, water, and heat are the only products. The cells are unique in terms of the variety of potential applications. They can power everything from vehicles including spacecraft or an entire infrastructure.

Fuel cells are working like batteries and they do not need recharging, just refueling. They produce electricity as long as the fuel is supplied in a sufficient manner. The fuel cell is consisting of at least two electrodes namely a negative electrode (or cathode, where the positive charges travel to) and a positive electrode (or anode, where negative charges travel) − that is sandwiched around an electrolyte. A fuel like hydrogen is fed to the anode, and air or oxygen is fed to the cathode. A catalyst at the anode separates hydrogen molecules into protons & electrons, the latter generate electrical current.

The fuel cells are used in a wide range of applications, including transportation, material handling, and stationary, portable and backup power applications. The cells have numerous benefits over conventional combustion-based technologies currently used in power plants & vehicles. Fuel cells emit only water, so there are no carbon dioxide emissions during operation.

 Different elements of the fuel cell

The anode is the positive post of the fuel cell serving several purposes. Electrons are freed from the hydrogen molecules so that they can be used in an electrical circuit. Pores in the electrode disperse the hydrogen gas equally on the surface of the catalyst.

The cathode is the negative post and also porous. Oxygen gets dispersed on the surface of the catalyst and it can recombine with the hydrogen ions & oxygen to form water.

The electrolyte can be a proton exchange membrane or another porous or liquid material. Some membranes look like ordinary kitchen plastic wrap, put have micro pores to allow positively charged ions to pass through.

Catalysts are vital to fuel cells in that they facilitate the reactions of oxygen and hydrogen. They can be made of platinum nano-particles very thinly coated onto carbon paper, cloth, or other, arterial.

The proton exchange membrane is the heart of the cell and it allows protons to pass through it unimpeded blocking other compounds of that are also present in the electrolyte.

What are the advantages of fuel cells?

  • Fuel cells avoid the ‘thermal bottleneck’ and thus are more efficient than combustion engines. Chemical energy is directly converted into electrical energy which makes fuel cells more efficient than combustion engines.
  • Direct emissions from fuel cells are just water and a little heat. This is a huge improvement over internal combustion engines’ litany of greenhouse gases.
  • The cells do not contain moving parts and are therefore much more reliable than traditional engines.
  • The cells can be produced in an environment-friendly manner, as opposed to oil refining which is very damaging our environment.

Hydrogen fuel cells do not produce air pollutants or greenhouse gases and significantly improves the environment. The cells are the most efficient form of energy conversion apparatuses converting chemical into electrical energy.

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A Graphene Membrane Becomes a Nano-Scale Water Gate

Biological systems can control water flow using channels in their membranes. This has many advantages, for example when cells need to regulate their osmotic pressure. Also artificial systems, e.g. in water treatment or in electrochemical cells, could benefit from it. Now, a group of materials researchers behind Dr. Zhou at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom have developed a membrane that can electrically switch the flow of water.

As the researchers reported in the journal Nature, a sandwiched membrane of silver, graphene, and gold was fabricated. At a voltage of more than 2 V channels it opens its pores and water is immediately channeled through the membrane. The effect is reversible. To do this, the researchers used the property of graphene to form a tunable filter or even a perfect barrier to liquids and gases. New ‘smart’ membranes, developed using a low-cost form of graphene called graphene oxide, allow precise control of water flow by using an electrical current. The membranes can even be used to completely block water when needed.

To produce the membrane, the research group has embedded conductive filaments in the electrically insulating graphene oxide membrane. An electric current passed through these nanofilaments created a large electric field that ionizes the water molecules and thus controls the water transport through the graphene capillaries in the membrane.

At Frontis Energy we are excited about this new technology and can imagine numerous applications. This research makes it possible to precisely control water permeation from ultrafast flow-through to complete shut-off. The development of such smart membranes controlled by external stimuli would be of great interest to many areas of business and research alike. These membranes could, for instance, find application in electrolysis cells or in medicine. For medical applications, artificial biological systems, such as tissue grafts, enable a plenty of medical applications.

However, the delicate material consisting of graphene, gold, and silver nano-layers is still too expensive and not as resistant as our Nafion™ membranes. But unlike Nafion™ you can tune them. We stay tuned to see what is coming next.

(Illustration: University of Manchester)