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Fuel Cell Technology: Mankind's Biggest Bet for Greener Future!

Snapshot: What will happen to Mankind when all oil is burned?

Yes! we know the title makes a strong statement, but, you will have  to trust us, we are not exaggerating even a single bit. As you read this, the petroleum reserves around the globe are not just depleting, they are depleting at rates previously unheard of. Add to all this, the amount of pollution and toxic residues we are creating by using various petroleum based energy resources, has reached a level much beyond what Earth's delicate ecosystem can possibly handle, it won't be a farfetched statement when we say, Mankind is indeed living on a borrowed time now on this planet.

However, we are not sleeping, at least not all of us. Throughout the world scientists and engineers are spending countless hours, sacrificing their days and nights to achieve and create technologies that can bring forth the green future the third rock from the sun desperately needs.

There are a numerous technologies that have the potential to change the way our world looks at its future, and we firmly believe that the future is indeed green and we will indeed survive and come out stronger than ever from these times.

Though we would like to discuss all of these technologies one by one, the most important of these, the one which we believe has the potential to single handily solve most of our grave energy and power issues and the one we will be talking about today is "Fuel Cell Technology".

The beauty of this technology lies in the fact that once mass feasible, it will be able to completely replace usage of Fuel Combustion technology to create energy and power, both in Stationary as well as Mobile application. It has a potential to power your home and your car too.

In this article we are going to dwell upon the basics of 'Fuel Cell Technology' and what its effect can be on the way we live our lives. A 'Fuel Cell' is a device that converts the chemical energy from a fuel into electricity through a chemical reaction with oxygen or another oxidizing agent. Every fuel cell has two electrodes, one positive and one negative, called, respectively, the anode and cathode. The reactions that produce electricity take place at the electrodes. 

Every fuel cell also has an electrolyte, which carries electrically charged particles from one electrode to the other, and a catalyst, which speeds the reactions at the electrodes. Hydrogen is the basic fuel, but fuel cells also require oxygen. One great appeal of fuel cells is that they generate electricity with very little pollution–much of the hydrogen and oxygen used in generating electricity ultimately combine to form a harmless by product, namely water. 

Fuel cells are different from batteries in that they require a continuous source of fuel and oxygen/air to sustain the chemical reaction whereas in a battery the chemicals present in the battery react with each other to generate an electromotive force (emf). Fuel cells can produce electricity continuously for as long as these inputs are supplied.

The first fuel cells were invented in 1838. The first commercial use of fuel cells came more than a century later in NASA space programs to generate power for probes, satellites and space capsules. Since then, fuel cells have been used in many other applications. Fuel cells are used for primary and backup power for commercial, industrial and residential buildings and in remote or inaccessible areas. They are also used to power fuel-cell vehicles, including forklifts, automobiles, buses, boats, motorcycles and submarines.

Fuel cells come in a variety of sizes. Individual fuel cells produce relatively small electrical potentials, about 0.7 volts, so cells are "stacked", or placed in series, to increase the voltage and meet an application's requirements. In addition to electricity, fuel cells produce water, heat and, depending on the fuel source, very small amounts of nitrogen dioxide and other emissions. The energy efficiency of a fuel cell is generally between 40–60%, or up to 85% efficient in cogeneration if waste heat is captured for use.

The most important type of fuel cell are called - Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel Cell design, it has a proton-conducting polymer membrane (the electrolyte) which separates the anode and cathode sides. This was called a "solid polymer electrolyte fuel cell" (SPEFC) in the early 1970s, before the proton exchange mechanism was well-understood. 

On the anode side, hydrogen diffuses to the anode catalyst where it later dissociates into protons and electrons. The protons are conducted through the membrane to the cathode, but the electrons are forced to travel in an external circuit (supplying power) because the membrane is electrically insulating. On the cathode catalyst, oxygen molecules react with the electrons (which have travelled through the external circuit) and protons to form water.

The different components of a PEMFC are;
1.    Bipolar plates,
2.    Electrodes,
3.    Catalyst,
4.    Membrane, and
5.    The necessary hardware. 

The materials used for different parts of the fuel cells differ by type. The bipolar plates may be made of different types of materials, such as, metal, coated metal, graphite, flexible graphite, C–C composite, carbon–polymer composites etc. The Membrane Electrode Assembly (MEA) is referred as the heart of the PEMFC and is usually made of a proton exchange membrane sandwiched between two catalyst-coated carbon papers. Platinum and/or similar type of noble metals are usually used as the catalyst for PEMFC. The electrolyte could be a polymer membrane.

The tank-to-wheel efficiency of a fuel-cell vehicle is greater than 45% at low loads and shows average values of about 36% when a driving cycle like the NEDC (New European Driving Cycle) is used as test procedure. The comparable NEDC value for a Diesel vehicle is 22%. In 2008 Honda released a demonstration fuel cell electric vehicle (the Honda FCX Clarity) with fuel stack claiming a 60% tank-to-wheel efficiency.

In 2013 military organisations are evaluating fuel cells to significantly reduce the battery weight carried by soldiers. Stationary fuel cells are used for commercial, industrial and residential primary and backup power generation. Fuel cells are very useful as power sources in remote locations, such as spacecraft, remote weather stations, large parks, communications centers, rural locations including research stations, and in certain military applications. 

A fuel cell system running on hydrogen can be compact and lightweight, and have no major moving parts. Because fuel cells have no moving parts and do not involve combustion, in ideal conditions they can achieve up to 99.9999% reliability. This equates to less than one minute of downtime in a six-year period.

Fuel cells are also much cleaner than traditional power generation; a fuel cell power plant using natural gas as a hydrogen source would create less than one ounce of pollution (other than CO2) for every 1,000 kW•h produced, compared to 25 pounds of pollutants generated by conventional combustion systems. Fuel Cells also produce 97% less nitrogen oxide emissions than conventional coal-fired power plants.

One such pilot program is operating on Stuart Island in Washington State. There the Stuart Island Energy Initiative has built a complete, closed-loop system: Solar panels power an electrolyzer, which makes hydrogen. The hydrogen is stored in a 500-U.S.-gallon (1,900 L) tank at 200 pounds per square inch (1,400 kPa), and runs a ReliOn fuel cell to provide full electric back-up to the off-the-grid residence. Another closed system loop was unveiled in late 2011 in Hempstead, NY. 

Fuel cells can be used with low-quality gas from landfills or waste-water treatment plants to generate power and lower methane emissions. A 2.8 MW fuel cell plant in California is said to be the largest of the type. 

On the Automobile Industry front, over 20 fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) prototypes and demonstration cars have been released since 2009. Demonstration models include the Honda FCX Clarity, Toyota FCHV-adv, and Mercedes-Benz F-Cell. As of June 2011 demonstration FCEVs had driven more than 4,800,000 km with more than 27,000 refuelling.

Demonstration fuel cell vehicles have been produced with "a driving range of more than 400 km between refuelling". They can be refuelled in less than 5 minutes. The U.S. Department of Energy's Fuel Cell Technology Program claims that, as of 2011, fuel cells achieved 53–59% efficiency at one-quarter power and 42–53% vehicle efficiency at full power, and a durability of over 120,000 km with less than 10% degradation. 

In a Well-to-Wheels simulation analysis, that "did not address the economics and market constraints", General Motors and its partners estimated that per mile travelled, a fuel cell electric vehicle running on compressed gaseous hydrogen produced from natural gas could use about 40% less energy and emit 45% less greenhouse gasses than an internal combustion vehicle. A lead engineer from the Department of Energy whose team is testing fuel cell cars said in 2011 that the potential appeal is that "these are full-function vehicles with no limitations on range or refuelling rate so they are a direct replacement for any vehicle. For instance, if you drive a full sized SUV and pull a boat up into the mountains, you can do that with this technology and you can't with current battery-only vehicles, which are more geared toward city driving.

Several major car manufacturers have announced plans to introduce a production model of a fuel cell car in 2015. In 2013, Toyota has stated that it plans to introduce such a vehicle at a price of less than US$100,000.  Mercedes-Benz announced that they would move the scheduled production date of their fuel cell car from 2015 up to 2014, asserting that "The product is ready for the market technically. ... The issue is infrastructure."

At the Paris Auto Show in September 2012, Hyundai announced that it plans to begin producing a commercial production fuel cell model (based on the ix35) in December 2012 and hopes to deliver 1,000 of them by 2015. Other manufacturers planning to sell fuel cell electric vehicles commercially by 2016 or earlier include General Motors (2015),  Honda (2015 in Japan),  and Nissan.

In 2005 a British manufacturer of hydrogen-powered fuel cells, Intelligent Energy (IE), produced the first working hydrogen run motorcycle called the ENV (Emission Neutral Vehicle). The motorcycle holds enough fuel to run for four hours, and to travel 160 km in an urban area, at a top speed of 80 km/h. In 2004 Honda developed a fuel-cell motorcycle that utilized the Honda FC Stack. 

Other examples of motorbikes and bicycles that use hydrogen fuel cells include the Taiwanese company APFCT's scooter using the fuelling system from Italy's Acta SpA  and the Suzuki Burgman scooter with an IE fuel cell that received EU Whole Vehicle Type Approval in 2011. Suzuki Motor Corp. and IE have announced a joint venture to accelerate the commercialization of zero-emission vehicles. 

Like we said, the future of Mankind is bright and green. However, all these technologies will take some time to get up to speed and become economically and logistically viable enough to be used by the masses throughout the world. That said, it is our extreme responsibility to use energy reserves of planet in the most efficient ways possible, for just like legacy, we should also leave a greener planet for our generations. 

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