Hydrogen Fuel Cell
The Hydrogen Fuel Cell could revolutionize the world. This ingenious technology, which creates electricity from the chemical reactions of hydrogen and oxygen has, in its 150-year history, passed many of the critical tests along the path from invention to innovation. Recent developments in fuel cell technology and concurrent developments within the energy and automotive industries have brought the world to brink of the fuel cell age and the hydrogen economy.
The future is, however, inherently murky. Fuel cells still face significant technological, political and economic hurdles before they can realize their truly awesome potential. An examination of these hurdles, set to the backdrop of an explanation of the current state of the art in fuel cell technology and the current and developing economic and regulatory landscape, will provide insights into much touted future of the fuel cell. In the near future, the fuel cell will come to play a much more prominent role in the world energy economy. The extent to which this innovation will revolutionize the world will depend on any number of technological, economic and political factors.
In order to understand the potential impact and resulting policy implications of the fuel cell, it is first necessary to explain the technology of the fuel cell. The fuel cell utilizes the chemical properties of hydrogen to produce an electrical current. "...[T]hey produce an electric current by intercepting the electrons that flow from one reactant to the other in an electrochemical reaction."1 Fuel cells require only a fuel containing hydrogen and oxygen, usually from atmospheric air, to produce electricity. A fuel cell that utilizes pure hydrogen produces this electricity leaving water and heat as the only waste by-products. Recent interest in the hydrogen fuel cell stems from its ability to produce electricity without the producing any pollutants, including carbon dioxide, associated with the burning of fossil fuels.
A fuel cell is, in principle, a very simple electrochemical device. The chemical reaction that powers hydrogen fuel cells is the same as that which occurs when hydrogen burns. The chemical equation for this reaction is: 2H2 + O2 ( 2H2O + energy. "Normally hydrogen burns, reacting with oxygen from the air, producing water, heat and light. ... In the fuel cell the chemical reaction is exactly the same, but instead of producing light and heat energy, electrical energy is produced."2 All fuel cells consist of an electrolyte (a substance that allows only the passage of ions) sandwiched between two electrodes. When a fuel containing hydrogen is passed over the negative electrode, otherwise known as an anode, it is ionized. Ionization of the fuel, often accomplished with the assistance of a catalyst, removes electrons from the hydrogen creating positively charged hydrogen ions and negatively charged free electrons. Since only the ions can pass through the electrolyte situated...