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Fuel Cell Introduction & Tutorial

- overview & tutorial of fuel cells including where and how it is used, the various types and how they work.



Fuel cells provide an excellent source of power in many areas.

Fuel cells are clean and easy to use and in many remote areas where electrical power is required, this technology provides an ideal solution.

With many recent advances, fuel cells are becoming more convenient, cost effective and efficient in terms of use. Accordingly they are being used in a wide variety of applications.

Fuel cell history

The basic concept for fuel cells has been in existence for many years, first appearing in the 1830s.

The first mention of fuel calls came in 1838 when the German scientist Christian Friedrich Schonbein published details of one.

The concept was take up and the first working fuel cell was demonstrated by Welsh scientist and barrister Sir William Robert Grove in February 1839.

Little development was undertaken for very many years, it is thought that British engineer Francis Bacon successfully developed one in 1939. However the next major publicised development was by a GE chemist named Thomas Grubb. In 1955 he further developed the original design for a fuel cell, making it more viable.

This design was later taken up by NASA and used by NASA for their Apollo space craft and later for the Shuttle.


Fuel cell technology advantages & disadvantages

Fuel cells offer many advantages, especially when compared to diesel generators which form one of the major competitive technologies.


Advantages Disadvantages
  • Green because by product is water - no greenhouse gasses.
  • Self contained - can run remotely.
  • Hydrogen used in many fuel cells is not likely to be stolen. Diesel used for generators is a valuable commodity in many countries and is often subject to theft.
  • Hydrogen is readily available.
  • Hydrogen is cheap.
  • Fuel cells operate quietly (diesel generators are noisy).
  • Reliability - as there are no moving parts in a fuel cell, the technology is reliable.
  • Require short "warm-up" times, i.e. they can come on line quickly.
  • Hydrogen used in many fuel cells is not the easiest to store in large quantities
  • The basic fuel cell produces DC power. Where AC is used an inverter is needed to convert the DC to AC.

Fuel cell applications

Fuel cells is being used in many areas because of their advantages and general convenience.

Fuel cells are often used where remote sources of power are needed. They are particularly useful in developing countries where mains electrical power may not always be available. They are being increasingly used for applications where diesel generators may have been used previously.

One major application for fuel cells is for powering remote cellular telecommunications base stations. With cellular telecommunications becoming a major part of the infrastructure of many developing countries, base stations are often needed in outlying areas where no mains power is available.

The other major alternative for power in these circumstances is diesel generators. These suffer from a number of disadvantages. Not only are they noisy smelly and generate greenhouse gasses, but the fuel stores are a major target for thieves wanting to obtain the fuel which can be used or sold very easily. Hydrogen used in fuel cells is not subject to this problem.

Fuel cells are also used in many other areas as well. They can be found as backup power for commercial, industrial and residential buildings, and sometimes even as the primary power source in some remote or inaccessible areas.

Fuel cells are also being used as the power source in vehicles as well where their quiet and reliable operation is being utilised.

By Ian Poole


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