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Applications of Fuel Cells

Fuel Cells Definition

Fuel cells are electrochemical devices that convert chemical energy into electrical energy through a controlled redox reaction. Unlike traditional combustion engines, which produce harmful emissions, fuel cells are highly efficient and produce clean power. The core components of a fuel cell include an electrolyte and anode and cathode catalysts.


Working of Fuel Cells

Fuel cells operate on the principle of combining hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity and water. At the anode, hydrogen molecules split into protons and electrons. The protons then pass through the electrolyte while the electrons travel through an external circuit, creating an electric current. At the cathode, oxygen combines with protons and electrons to produce water vapour as a byproduct. This eco-friendly process presents a remarkable advancement in sustainable energy solutions.


Detailed Overview of fuel cells working:


Fuel Cell (Al-Zaidi & et. al., 2021)
Fuel Cell (Al-Zaidi & et. al., 2021)

1. Fuel Supply

The fuel cell requires a source of fuel to operate. Common fuels used in fuel cells include hydrogen, natural gas, methanol, and even gasoline in some cases. Hydrogen is often considered the cleanest fuel for fuel cells since its only byproduct is water.


2. Anode (Negative Electrode)

The fuel is supplied to the anode of the fuel cell. In the case of a hydrogen fuel cell, hydrogen gas is usually used. At the anode, the fuel undergoes a reaction which varies depending on the type of fuel cell and the fuel used. In a hydrogen fuel cell, hydrogen molecules (H2) split into two protons (H+) and two electrons (e^-).


3. Electrolyte

The anode and cathode in a fuel cell are separated by an electrolyte, which is a special membrane. The electrolyte allows only positively charged ions (such as protons) to pass through while blocking the electrons.


4. Cathode (Positive Electrode)

Oxygen (usually from the air) is supplied to the cathode of the fuel cell. At the cathode, the oxygen combines with the electrons that flow from the anode through an external circuit. This electrochemical reaction produces negatively charged oxygen ions (O2-) at the cathode.


5. Electrical Circuit

Since the electrons cannot pass through the electrolyte, they are forced to travel through an external electrical circuit from the anode to the cathode, creating an electric current in the process. This electric current is the usable electrical energy produced by the fuel cell.


6. Electrical Power

The electric current generated by the fuel cell can be harnessed to power electrical devices, motors, or any other equipment that requires electricity. This process is continuous as long as fuel and an oxidizing agent (usually oxygen) are supplied to the fuel cell.


7. Byproducts

The only byproducts of the electrochemical reaction in a hydrogen fuel cell are water (H2O) and heat. These byproducts are usually released as steam or vapour, depending on the operating conditions of the fuel cell.


Types of Fuel Cells


1. Polymer Electrolyte Membrane Fuel Cell (PEMFC)

The PEMFC, also known as the Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel Cell, operates at relatively low temperatures, making it suitable for various applications, including transportation. It uses a polymer electrolyte membrane as the electrolyte, which allows only protons to pass through while blocking electrons. PEMFCs are compact, have fast startup times, and offer high power density, making them ideal for powering vehicles, portable electronics, and small-scale power systems.


2. Solid Oxide Fuel Cell (SOFC)

SOFCs operate at high temperatures, typically above 600°C (1112°F). They utilize a solid ceramic electrolyte that conducts oxygen ions from the cathode to the anode. This high-temperature operation allows SOFCs to efficiently convert a wide range of fuels, including hydrogen, natural gas, and biofuels, into electricity. Due to their high efficiency and ability to produce both electricity and heat, SOFCs find applications in large-scale power generation and combined heat and power systems.


3. Molten Carbonate Fuel Cell (MCFC)

MCFCs operate at even higher temperatures, typically between 650°C and 800°C (1202°F to 1472°F), using a molten carbonate salt mixture as the electrolyte. This high-temperature operation enables MCFCs to utilize a variety of fuels, including natural gas and biogas, and achieve high efficiency. They are commonly used in large power generation systems, such as grid-connected power plants and industrial cogeneration units.


4. Phosphoric Acid Fuel Cell (PAFC)

PAFCs use phosphoric acid as the electrolyte and operate at temperatures around 150°C to 200°C (302°F to 392°F). They are well-suited for stationary power generation applications, providing electricity and heat for commercial and industrial use. PAFCs have a long operating life and are known for their reliability and durability.


5. Alkaline Fuel Cell (AFC)

AFCs use an alkaline electrolyte, typically potassium hydroxide (KOH), and operate at relatively low temperatures. They were among the first fuel cell types to be developed and have been used in various applications, including space missions and early aerospace projects. While they have been largely replaced by other fuel cell types in commercial applications, AFCs are still utilized in specialized niches, such as niche aerospace applications and specific portable power systems.


6. Direct Methanol Fuel Cell (DMFC)

DMFCs are a type of proton exchange membrane fuel cell that directly uses methanol as fuel without the need for a reformer. They offer the advantage of using liquid fuel, making them suitable for portable electronic devices and small-scale power systems. However, DMFCs face challenges related to methanol crossover and require efficient methanol recovery systems.


Applications of Fuel Cells


1. Transportation

Fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) are a type of electric vehicle that employs fuel cell technology to generate electricity onboard. Unlike traditional battery-electric vehicles that store electricity in batteries, FCVs utilize hydrogen gas as fuel, which reacts with oxygen in the fuel cell to produce electricity, water, and heat. This electrochemical process, known as the hydrogen fuel cell reaction, results in the production of electrical power that drives the vehicle's electric motor.

Fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) offer an alternative to conventional internal combustion engine vehicles by producing zero-emission power. Hydrogen-powered FCVs boast longer ranges and shorter refuelling times compared to electric vehicles, making them a promising contender for a cleaner future on the roads.

Hydrogen fuel cell buses stand as a transformative force in the world of public transportation, offering a cleaner, more efficient, and sustainable alternative to traditional buses. With zero emissions, rapid refuelling, extended range, and smooth operation, hydrogen fuel cell buses hold tremendous potential in reducing air pollution and advancing greener mobility.


Fuel Cell Bus (Alaswad & et. al., 2020)
Fuel Cell Bus (Alaswad & et. al., 2020)


2. Energy Generation


1. Alternative to Electricity

They can be deployed as distributed power sources, providing electricity to homes, businesses, and even remote areas. Additionally, fuel cells can be integrated into existing power grids, offering stability during peak demand periods. Their ability to produce electricity without greenhouse gas emissions aligns perfectly with the global drive toward renewable energy solutions.


2. Backup Power

Fuel cells are well-suited for backup power applications. They offer a reliable energy source during grid failures and emergencies, ensuring essential services continue without interruption.


3. Portable and Remote Power

Portable fuel cells power a range of devices, from laptops and smartphones to camping equipment. Moreover, in remote and off-grid areas, fuel cells provide a sustainable energy solution, supporting communities without access to traditional power infrastructure.


3. Aerospace Industry

Fuel cells have found applications in the aerospace sector, powering unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and space missions. Their high energy density and lightweight nature make them ideal for aircraft where every kilogram counts. As space exploration expands, fuel cells could become a vital component in extended missions, enabling sustainable power generation in distant corners of the universe.


1. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) / Drones

Fuel cells are being utilized to power UAVs, also known as drones, especially those designed for long-endurance missions. Hydrogen fuel cells, in particular, offer longer flight times compared to traditional battery-powered UAVs, enabling extended surveillance and data-gathering missions.


2. Aircraft Auxiliary Power Units (APUs)

Fuel cell-based APUs are being developed for aircraft. The APU provides electrical power and other services to an aircraft while on the ground or in flight. Fuel cell APUs offer the advantage of reduced noise and emissions compared to traditional fossil-fuel-based APUs.


3. Electric Aircraft

Electric aircraft, including hybrid-electric and all-electric planes, are being explored as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in aviation. Fuel cells can be integrated into electric aircraft as a power source, providing a clean and efficient means of electricity generation to drive the electric motors.


4. Spacecraft Power Systems

Fuel cells have been used in space missions to generate electricity for spacecraft. For example, fuel cells have been used on space shuttles and space stations to provide power and water for crew members.


5. Electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing (eVTOL) Aircraft

Fuel cells are being considered for use in eVTOL aircraft, which are designed for short-distance urban air mobility. Fuel cells offer a lightweight and efficient power source, making them suitable for this type of aircraft


4. Marine Vessels

The maritime industry is also exploring fuel cell technology to reduce its carbon footprint. Fuel cells can be used in auxiliary power units and as a source of propulsion for smaller vessels, offering a cleaner and quieter maritime experience. By adopting fuel cells, the shipping industry can play a crucial role in mitigating the impact on the environment of marine transportation.


Fuel Cell Ship (Madsen & et. al., 2020)
Fuel Cell Ship (Madsen & et. al., 2020)

1. Ferries and Passenger Ships

Hydrogen fuel cells are being integrated into ferries and passenger ships, particularly for short to medium-distance routes. These fuel cells provide clean and efficient electricity to power the onboard systems and electric propulsion systems.


2. Research Vessels

Fuel cells are used in research vessels that conduct scientific studies, environmental monitoring, and oceanographic research. Their quiet operation and lower emissions are beneficial in preserving marine environments and reducing disturbances to marine life.


3. Surface Vehicles (USVs)

Unmanned surface vehicles, used for tasks like surveying, monitoring, and inspection, can be powered by fuel cells. Hydrogen fuel cells, in particular, offer extended endurance, enabling longer missions without frequent refuelling.


4. Submarines

Some military submarines are exploring the use of fuel cells for their propulsion systems. Fuel cells provide a quiet and emission-free power source, making submarines less detectable and reducing their environmental impact..


Advantages of Fuel Cells


1. Environmental Benefits

2. High Efficiency

3. Versatility

4. Reliability

5. Noise Reduction


1. Environmental Benefits

Fuel cells stand out for their environmental advantages, producing only water and heat as byproducts. This minimal impact on air quality makes them a key player in combatting climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.


2. High Efficiency

Fuel cells are highly efficient, converting a significantly higher percentage of energy stored in fuel to electricity compared to traditional combustion engines. This efficiency leads to reduced fuel consumption and increased overall sustainability.


3. Versatility

Fuel cells come in various shapes and sizes, offering versatility in their applications. From powering vehicles to generating electricity for stationary use, fuel cells cater to a wide range of needs.


4. Reliability

Fuel cells boast high reliability due to their minimal moving parts and lower maintenance requirements. This characteristic makes them a dependable source of power in critical situations.


5. Noise Reduction

Compared to traditional engines, the fuel cells operate quietly, reducing noise pollution in both urban and remote areas. This aspect is particularly advantageous for transportation modes, promoting a more pleasant and serene environment.


Microbial Fuel Cells

Microbial fuel cells are bioelectrochemical devices that utilize microorganisms to convert organic matter into electricity through a process known as microbial respiration. In these cells, microorganisms, such as bacteria, anaerobic archaea, or fungi, act as biocatalysts that break down organic substances present in various substrates, including wastewater, organic waste, or even soil. The microbial activity generates electrons as byproducts, which are then harvested as electrical power.


Microbial Fuel cell (Tan & et. al., 2021)
Microbial Fuel cell (Tan & et. al., 2021)

Microbial Fuel Cells Working

The functioning of microbial fuel cells can be divided into two key compartments:


Anode Compartment

In this section, the microorganisms reside and break down organic matter through their metabolic processes. During the breakdown, electrons and protons are released as part of microbial respiration.


Cathode Compartment

In the cathode compartment, a separate electrode is placed, and it acts as the electron acceptor. Electrons from the anode compartment travel through an external circuit to reach the cathode, where they combine with oxygen or other electron acceptors, along with protons from the anode compartment. This reaction results in the production of water or other reduced compounds as byproducts.


The flow of electrons from the anode to the cathode through an external circuit is what generates electricity.


Conclusion

The advantages of fuel cells are clear and numerous. Their silent operation, high efficiency, and reduced dependence on fossil fuels position them as a game-changer in the energy landscape. By harnessing hydrogen as a fuel source, fuel cells contribute significantly to mitigating climate change and achieving sustainable energy goals.

Despite these benefits, challenges such as infrastructure development and production costs persist. However, ongoing research and investments in the field of fuel cell technology promise to address these obstacles and accelerate their adoption.


References

  1. Alaswad, A. & Omran, Abdelnasir & Sodre, Jose & Wilberforce Awotwe, Tabbi & Pignatelli, Gianmic0helle & Dassisti, Michele & Baroutaji, Ahmad & Olabi, Abdul Ghani. (2020). Technical and Commercial Challenges of Proton‐Exchange Membrane (PEM) Fuel Cells. Energies. 14. 10.3390/en14010144.

  2. Al-Zaidi, Muthana & Qussay, Rand & Al-Zubaidy, Duha & Mahmood, Mohanad. (2021). A Review: Fuel Cells Types and their Applications. 7. 375-390.

  3. R.T. Madsen, L.E. Klebanoff, S.A.M. Caughlan, J.W. Pratt, T.S. Leach, T.B. Appelgate, S.Z. Kelety, H.-C. Wintervoll, G.P. Haugom, A.T.Y. Teo, S. Ghosh, (2020). Feasibility of the Zero-V: A zero-emissions hydrogen fuel-cell coastal research vessel, International Journal of Hydrogen Energy, Volume 45, Issue 46,2020,28-43,https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijhydene.2020.06.019.

  4. Tan WH, Chong S, Fang H-W, Pan K-L, Mohamad M, Lim JW, Tiong TJ, Chan YJ, Huang C-M, Yang TC-K (2021). Microbial Fuel Cell Technology—A Critical Review on Scale-Up Issues. Processes; 9(6):985. https://doi.org/10.3390/pr9060985

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