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Fuel Cells - Proton Exchange Membrance Fuel Cells

What exactly are fuel cells?

Fuel cells – water, water, everywhere

After labouring over rechargeable batteries and believing that just possibly the Lithium Ion cell with all the modern advancements in technology thrown at it may be king we have the fuel cell, in some cases the PEMFC or the use of Polymer Exchange Membrane Fuel Cells.  Is this really just genius or hype? Do we really need to have a bank of Lithoum Ion batteries that needs to be recharged or can we just top up with water instead of a fossil fuel?  We may have a shortage of water but not of sea water. So many questions, so few answers.

Fuel Cells - Proton Exchange Membrance Fuel Cells
Fuel Cells or PEMFC – image credit wiki/ Kpengboy

Whilst searching for the ever green renewable fuel source we come across a couple of snags. In the motor industry we need a lot of power and this power must always be on tap. A trip into the wilderness in your electric car may prove to be just a one way trip, the wilderness has no rechargeable outlets leaving you and your expensive vehicle stranded. Hybrids of course are much more serious and they won’t leave you stranded unless you run out of gas, petrol or diesel. Rechargeable vehicles are charged from the same source as that used in heating your kettle – from a coal fired steam driven alternator.  The hybrid is still using fossil fuels. Hybrids and their associated fuel economy may be a thing of the present but in some cases road tests have proven that they are not as efficient as claimed. This leaves us then with the fuel cell.




A battery, cell or stack produces electricity by a chemical reaction.  That is, electrodes anode, cathode and the electrolyte e.g. positive and negative poles in the lead acid car battery.  Not wanting to plagiarise, readers can get reading material from, an authoritive website on this highly technical subject. Fuel cells do not cover an exhaustive topic, they are ever changing and technology has in many ways favoured them over other forms of providing an energy source because the basic emission is pure water and heat. (lead acid gives off hydrogen gas and the electrolyte is highly corrosive).

Alternative Fuelsthe alternative energy concept

Fuel cells have two main disadvantages, cost of manufacture of the cell and fuel and of course, fuel accessibility.  Whilst many countries do ship hydrogen, how plausible is it to manufacture the gas at a refueling station? Manufacturers of hydrogen currently use hydrocarbon reforming of natural gas through a superheated steam process which releases hydrogen but the apparent disadvantage is that more power is used in this process than which it can deliver.  This still remains the main disadvantage of using hydrogen as a fuel. Whilst the gas itself is not toxic it is also highly flammable.  Anyone having read about the Hindenberg will be fully aware of the pitfalls. However propane gas is also flammable, is toxic and has been shipped via pipeline or tanker for many years, mostly without incident. Manufacturing onsite is still the most viable however.  The Alternative Energy website covers the pitfalls of manufacture and the use of solar energy to manufacture hydrogen.

Samsung to the rescue

The idea of generating hydrogen gas from water is an exciting one and globally there should be more interest, more so than enticing participants in the space race with millions in prizes. A company such as Samsung (the electronics division), which would in any event be looking at alternative energy to push profits may be in the best position to offer a 10 million dollar prize to the harbinger of new age technology to derive hydrogen from water. I doubt we would find investment from a solely listed petroleum company – but who knows. Of course the company keeps the profits.



Money spinners and no more hybrids

To our mind, hydrogen fuel cells would take us into the 21st century, fossil fuels are old hat but huge money spinners.  We don’t want to see fossil fuels used in the hydrogen manufacturing process, neither a fuel injected gas or petrol engine driving a generator driving an electric motor coming to us at a premium price. Simplicity is key and it may be under our noses.

The manufacture of Fuel cells just remain too attractive and the disadvantages too few not to be taking this alternative form of energy very seriously. Water water everywhere not a drop to burn.

Read: Why a Hydrogen economy doesn’t make sense – (Dec 2006)

(see part one)



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