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Fuel Cells and Microturbines

FUEL CELLS ARE ON THE CUTTING EDGE OF FUTURE TECHNOLOGIES and have the potential to reshape our energy future. They use an electrochemical process to turn hydrogen and oxygen into pollution-free electricity and heat. Fuel cells have the potential to make the U.S. an energy independent nation, transforming our economy from one based on imported fossil fuels to a “hydrogen economy” fueled by hydrogen generated with local renewable

resources. Fuel cells offer an opportunity for communities interested in pursuing renewable energy demonstration projects as the technology is still under development and all aspects of the technology and the supporting infrastructure are in need of pilot trials.


Although the first fuel cell prototype was made in England in 1838, the modern version of fuel cell technology was developed as part of the Apollo moon program. NASA has demonstrated the commercial viability of fuel cells by continuing to use them to power space flights. Fuel cells can replace internal combustion engines in vehicles, batteries in all sorts of portable devices like cell phones and watches, and can generate electricity and heat for buildings and homes. Fuel cells are modular and can be small enough to fit in a watch or big enough to power large buildings.

The most immediate future applications for fuel cells will be in vehicles and replacing batteries in phones

and other mobile electronics. All of the major auto manufacturers have fuel cell vehicles under development and Honda and Toyota began leasing fuel cell cars on a small scale in 2003. Fuel cells are also being used in pilot trials at schools and in city buses in Iceland, the U.S. and European cities. Stationary applications in buildings for heating and electricity will likely follow close behind.

The market potential for fuel cells is estimated at $1.7 trillion by 2020. The private sector is investing $3 billion annually, and investment is

How Fuel Cells Work 1

A fuel cell is an electrochemical energy- conversion device like a battery. Fuel cells produce electricity via a chemical reaction, harnessing the chemical attraction between hydrogen and oxygen. The oxygen is taken from the air, and hydrogen fuel can come from water via electrolysis or from fossil fuels like gasoline or methanol. A catalyst pries hydrogen atoms apart into a positive ion and an electron. The positive ions pass through a membrane to bond with the oxygen; the electron travels around the membrane and through a circuit, generating an electrical current. On the other side of the membrane, the oxygen, hydrogen ions and electrons recombine to form water.

There are a number of different fuel cell technologies under development to serve different needs. Different types of conduc- tive materials or electrolytes are used. Proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells are most common in vehicles and in small devices. Other types are alkali, molten carbonate, phosphoric acid, and solid oxide fuel cells.

The basic hydrogen fuel cell

Cathode e- e-





H+ H+


e- e-



Oxygen (O)


Hydrogen (H)

H+ = Hydrogen Ions (water) e- = Electrons (electricity)



Fuel cells have the potential to make the U.S. an energy independent nation.

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