A pollution-free electricity generation technology that may power electric vehicles and even homes in the future. Road testing began at the end of the 20th century. Functioning like a battery, which uses electrochemical conversion, fuel cells take in hydrogen-rich fuel and oxygen and turn them into electricity and heat. The waste product of a fuel cell is water, and although not recommended for drinking, one test by Toyota showed fewer organic impurities than a glass of milk.
The Energy Alternative?
Although there are many obstacles, pundits predict fuel cells will be a huge industry in the 21st century. However, while hydrogen can be derived from gasoline, natural gas, propane or methanol, it depends on which sources ultimately make the most sense. In addition, hydrogen is difficult to distribute and stockpile, and installing hydrogen pumps in every gas station would be a gigantic undertaking. Currently, Ballard Power Systems, Inc., Burnaby, British Columbia (www.ballard.com) is the largest company making fuel cells.
A Ballard Fuel Cell
Separated by a polymer exchange membrane (PEM), the anode and cathode are coated with a platinum catalyst that causes the hydrogen fuel to separate into free electrons and positive hydrogen ions (protons). The free electrons are the electricity, while the ions migrate through the PEM to the cathode and combine with oxygen and returning electrons to form water and heat. (Image courtesy of Ballard Power Systems.)