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

1624 words - 6 pages

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 cells. But who wants to drive around in a large, slow and bulky solar powered vehicle or drive around in an atomic bomb? The most promising technology to date has been the fuel cell, which converts the chemical energy directly into electric energy. Since fuel cells generate power electrochemically, they are safe, reliable and easy to maintain. Best of all, fuel cells release no harmful pollutants into the atmosphere, and their efficiency can exceed 90 percent.Sir William Grove discovered the principle of the fuel cell in 1839. “Groves insights were gained from his experiments in 1839 non the electrolysis of water” (Natural). Even though he is attributed to be the “Father of the Fuel Cell”, the term “fuel cell” was not coined until, “1889 when Ludwig Mond and Charles Langer attempted to build the first practical devise using air and industrial coal gas” (Natural). Attempts in the 20th century to build fuel cells that could convert coal or carbon gas into electricity consistently failed due to the lack of understanding of materials and electrode kinetics. Meanwhile the internal combustion engine was developed. Add to this the discovery of petroleum; Electrochemical approaches to energy production were quickly abandoned.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...

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