Fuel Cells: Highway to Zero Emissions

When hydrogen and oxygen combine they create H2O, heat, light, and a loose electron. This loose electron can be captured and used as one of the cleanest forms of green energy known today.

hydrogen, oxygen diagram

The man considered to be the father of the fuel cell is Sir William Robert Grove. In 1839 he created a “gas voltaic battery.” He based his experiment on the fact that sending an electric current through water splits the water into its component parts of hydrogen and oxygen. So, Grove tried reversing the reaction – combining hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity and water. This is the basis of a simple fuel cell.

For the next 150 years, scientists would try to negotiate the delicate balance of cost efficiency.

Space Technology

NASA has been using fuel cell technology since the Gemini missions, which was a stepping stone to the Apollo missions. The Gemini missions gave NASA the opportunity to test, develop, and refine their space faring abilities.

Since then NASA has continued to pursue three different types of fuel cell technology: Proton-exchange-membrane fuel cells (PEMFCs), regenerative fuel cells (RFCs), and solid-oxide fuel cells (SOFCs).

PEMFCs: In theory these cells should last the longest out of the three. The only emissive byproduct of this cell is water. This water is said to be so pure that NASA plans to use it as drinking water for astronauts. While the future of these cells is bright they are definitely in need of further refinement.

RFCs: What a wonder that such a thing exists. These fuel cells create electricity, water, and heat. After the process the water is then introduced to a solar-powered electrolyzer. This takes the water and turns it back into its basic components: hydrogen and oxygen.

SOFCs: These cells are the most efficient of the three. They take energy from directly oxidizing fuels. The type of fuel is flexible and the cell is a long term champion. The only downside is that these cells need to operate at temperatures between 600-1000°C (1112-1832°F). Which… is something to sweat about.

Road Worthy

NASA Nerf GliderNASA has been quite generous in helping to provide the technological state we live in, from awarding the grant to the inventor of the mouse (the one you’re likely using right now) to aiding in the aerodynamic creation of the Nerf Glider. With the fuel cell it isn’t any different. Heck, they’re currently working with the Cleveland RTA using a hydrogen fuel cell powered bus to transport commuters to and fro.

The technology has even left the research labs of NASA and made its way into other industries. Cars too are now being conceptualized with Zero emissions.

2013 has shown us Toyota’s first attempt at the hydrogen fuel cell car. In California, Hyundai plans to introduce a “free fuel” program that will start with 1000 cars and only a few dealerships. American car companies are also planning to release their own fuel cell powered vehicles but you may have to wait a little bit longer. By 2017 Ford intends to introduce its own Hydrogen Car.

It seems that 150 years of experimentation is starting to bear fruit. Fuel cells have promising implications for a sustainable future, and after years of renewable hype, hydrogen-powered vehicles are ready to roll out.


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This is a derivative work of JR Lill licensed under a Creative Commons attribution-sharealike 3.0 unported license.