Fuel Cells in Green Engineering
The energy tomorrow is beginning to be available today. Fuel cells, which just a very few years ago were a pipe dream, are becoming g a reality, and they are used in areas ranging from space exploration to toy motivation (Joy). The promise of the fuel cell can be seen in the fact that they use the most abundant source of energy on the planet, Hydrogen atoms (Birch). They are also being seen as the energy savior because they emit a common, non-toxic waste which can also be utilized as a saving grace around the globe, water (Joy; Patturaja). A fuel that uses the most abundant element on the planet and emits clean, pure water does seem like science fiction, but there are already being used with it as a motive force.
The space shuttle has always been powered by hydrogen fuel cells (Joy). Although they are not the same kind that will end up in vehicles or houses, they are a model of what is to come. Some fleets of cars and government vehicles, ferries, buses and other modes of public transportation have already begun to use fuel cell technology as a power source (Joy).
The technology, then, has promise for its versatility in number of uses, but also for the variety of ways that the fuel can be provided (Patturaja). This essay will further discuss how fuel cells are constructed and how they can be used as a green innovation.
How Fuel Cells Work
Right now, there is only one type of fuel cell (Birch), but there are technologies on the near horizon that could use common garbage in the production of hydrogen.
To back up a bit, vehicles can convert fuel to energy in one of two ways and fuel cells are no different.
“[Vehicles] convert the chemical energy of hydrogen to mechanical energy (torque) in one of two methods: combustion, or electrochemical conversion in a fuel-cell: In combustion, the hydrogen is burned in engines in fundamentally the same method as traditional gasoline (petrol) cars. In fuel-cell conversion, the hydrogen is reacted with oxygen to produce water and electricity, the latter of which is used to power an electric traction motor” (Patturaja).
The use of fuel cells, which “release electrons from the hydrogen gas creating electricity and the waste product after the electricity is used to power an electrical device is water, formed with the negative hydrogen and the oxygen” (Joy), is safe and effective. They produce enough energy to power a car, and has been shown the space shuttle.
The reaction occurs as explained in this article by Karim Nice and Jonathan Strickland;
“Pressurized hydrogen gas (H2) entering the fuel cell on the anode side. This gas is forced through the catalyst by the pressure. When an H2 molecule comes in contact with the platinum on the catalyst, it splits into two H+ ions and two electrons (e-). The electrons are conducted through the anode, where they make their way through the external circuit (doing useful work such as turning a motor) and return to the cathode side of the fuel cell. Meanwhile, on the cathode side of the fuel cell, oxygen gas (O2) is being forced through the catalyst, where it forms two oxygen atoms. Each of these atoms has a strong negative charge. This negative charge attracts the two H+ ions through the membrane, where they combine with an oxygen atom and two of the electrons from the external circuit to form a water molecule (H2O).”
Fuel Cells and Green Engineering
But the most interesting thing about fuel cells is not how they can be used or even how they convert hydrogen into motive energy, but how and through what means the hydrogen itself can be generated. Most of the time scientists have been working with water to electrolyze the hydrogen they need from the component molecule H2O (Khan). This technology is not new. For a matter of fact, Epcot Center in Orlando, FL has shown fuel cell technology using water to convert hydrogen into fuel since the 1970’s. And, the technology was understood decades before that. Water as a fuel source is unimaginative though. Engineers want to see a problem and determine how they can make not only that process better, but how they can derive other solutions out of the one they are working on. Like a drug that has multiple uses, fuel cell technology may be the most green innovation currently being proposed because of its multiple possible applications.
As said previously, fuel cells have generally used water as a hydrogen source, but that process is being eclipsed by another idea. In the movie Back to the Future, doc Brown goes onto the future and re-equips his car with a fuel tank that takes trash and converts it to fuel. Modern microbial fuel cells may not quite live up to putting an old banana peel and a used beer can into the tank, but they operate on the principle of turning waste products into fuel.
Microbial fuel cells produce motive force in the same way as a traditional fuel cell, but they can use waste products such as farm runoff in the production of hydrogen. One of the greatest problems of the twentieth, and now twenty-first, century has been that farms produce so much waste that they are a negative impact on the environment. The Chesapeake Bay is becoming a forest of algae and dead fish because of the farm runoff along the waterway. If this waste could be put to some practical use, then it would help the environment and become useful.
The following is a shocking statement:
“The waste stream from one cow may hold 3,000 watts of potential power, but the electrical power required per cow on a dairy farm is only about 150 watts. This means that a first-generation MFC would have to be only 5% efficient to decouple the farm from external electrical infrastructure” (Birch)
Of course this is largely conjecture at this point, but what a boon for farmers and the environment alike. One dairy cow could potentially supply the needs of an entire farm. That is, if the fuel cells were 100% efficient, which they will never be. But they are much more efficient than regular means of electricity generation. This means that many areas could completely go off of the electrical grid which is powered by coal plants and nuclear plants. This green savings for the environment, in both reduced farm waste and reduced polluting emissions from traditional power plants, would be tremendous.
However, there is a potential green benefit that even outstrips these two. “MFCs are a budding technology that converts waste, such as industrial and agricultural byproducts, sewage, food scraps, paper, and plastics, into clean water and power” (Birch). The world is on the brink of having a serious dearth of clean water for its citizens (Fields). With this new technology that could be a problem of the past. Since the Earth itself is composed, in large part, of water, the technology could create clean, pure water where there was only desert before. It is the technology that keeps on giving
Few emerging technologies can compare to one that creates usable products from waste and does not itself create waste. This technology has so many applications that scientists are gleefully anticipating the next possibility (Fields). It is a revolution that could put an end to many of the problems seen in the world today. It seems the sky is the limit, but the entire story is yet to play out.
Birch, Amanda Sue. “Microbial Fuel Cells: Converting Waste to Water and Watts.” Engineering and Technology for a Sustainable World. (2010). Print.
Fields, Scott. “Making the Best of Biomass: Hydrogen for Fuel Cells.” Environmental Health Perspectives. (2003). Print.
Joy, Linda E. “A Basic Overview of Fuel Cell Technology.” Automotive Community. (2007). Web.
Khan, Abdul Majeed. “Electricity Generation by Microbial Fuel Cells.” Advances in Natural and Applied Sciences. (2009). Web.
Nice, Karim, and Jonathan Strickland. “How Fuel Cells Work.” How Things Work. (2010). Web.
Patturaja, Isaac. “Fueling the Future — Hydrogen.” Science and Technology, (2009). Print.
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