Can A 19th Century Discovery Be The Solution For The 21st Century Energy Problem?

1849 words - 8 pages

Fuel Cells:Can a 19th Century Discovery be the Solution for the 21st Century Energy Problem?ByDaniel McCarthyProfessor Regis P. BeighleyEco 2252September 30th 2001McCarthy 1Fuel Cells: Can a 19th Century Discovery be the Solution for the 21st Century Energy Problem?The energy crises of the 1970s and the discovery of the depletion of the Ozone layers in the 1990s have generated a sincere search for an alternate energy source. Restraints placed the new energy source are that it needs to be efficient, a renewable resource, and must be environmental safe. Some of the possibilities are the cumbersome solar power, the highly risky nuclear power, or the little publicly known technology called fuel ...view middle of the document...

Not until 1959 was the first successful fuel cell devices created by Francis Bacon. A "5kW system capable of powering a welding machine. In October of that same year, Henry Karl Ihrig of Allis Chalmers Manufacturing Company demonstrated his famous 20 horsepower fuelMcCarthy 2cell powered tractor" (Natural). About the same time a little known federal agency called the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, (NASA), began to search for alternate method to generate electricity in its upcoming manned space missions. After casting aside the cumbersome solar power and risky nuclear energy, NASA turned to fuel cells. "NASA eventually funded more than 200 research contracts into all aspects of fuel cells" (Natural). As a result of NASA's research and success with fuel cells providing reliable source of electricity to the Apollo and space shuttle missions, led to the predictions that fuel cells would be the panacea to the world' energy problem.What are fuel cells and how does it work? A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that combines hydrogen fuel and oxygen from the air to produce electricity, heat and water. "In simplest terms, a fuel cell is similar to a battery" (Holcomb, Binder, and Taylor). Since hydrogen gas isn't ready available most fuel cells, "have additional equipment - reformers and converters - to extract hydrogen from natural gas or propane and change the carbon monoxide freed in the process to carbon dioxide" (Kopicki 73). When oxygen and hydrogen are delivered to the fuel cell, it acts like a factory converting the two elements by chemical reaction without any moving parts. Individual fuel cells can be then combined into a fuel cell "stack". The number of fuel cells in the stack determines the total voltage, and the surface area of each cell determines the total current. Since the fuel is converted directly to electricity, a fuel cell can operate at much higher efficiencies than internal combustion engines, extracting more electricity from the same fuel. "If the heat from the fuel cell is used in cogeneration system, efficiencies can exceed 80 percent. Current convention coal-base technologies operate at efficiencies at 33 to 35 percent" (Holcomb, Binder, and Taylor).Three major applications are expected to emerge for fuel cells: electric power generation, portable electronic devices, and motor vehicles. Fuel cells technology offers such a promisingMcCarthy 3future as the solutions for these problems, the possible economic landfalls are astronomical in all the industries involved.In the home heating industry, "Phosphoric acid fuel cells are already proven power generators with lifetimes of 40,000 hours or more" (Kopicki 74). This potential for economic growth in this industry has created new companies like the ONSI Corporation that manufactures fuel cell generators to the International Fuel Cells, a new unit of United Technologies, who is the sole provider of fuel cells to NASA. This has also attracted giants from other...

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