Physics: Principles and Problems


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For use with Chapter 22
Current Electricity

Fuel Cells - Revolutionary Energy
Posted December 7th, 2000

If you’ve ever watched the space shuttle take off – or seen old news footage of a rocket being propelled into space – then you have seen fuel cells in action. Fuel cells use hydrogen and oxygen to generate energy. However, until recently, this sort of energy was so difficult to generate that it was only worthwhile to use it for a massive task.

Fuel cells work by separating two channels with a thin membrane. One channel contains oxygen, while the other contains hydrogen. Because oxygen and hydrogen bond so readily, the proton from hydrogen passes through the membrane to join the oxygen atom. The electrons left over from hydrogen take the path of least resistance, which is a wire that connects the two channels. When electrons travel through this wire, they produce electricity.

Today, fuel cell research has come a long way. In fact, the United States government has recently approved a bill that will help fund fuel cell research. The bill, signed into law in October 2000, will give $100 million to develop fuel cells for various uses.

One of the most exciting areas of research for fuel cells is for automobiles. For many years, scientists have recognized that the internal combustion engines of cars are dangerous for the environment. Burning gasoline causes pollution, including the production of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. Fuel cells, on the other hand, do not pose a pollution problem. When all you are burning is hydrogen and oxygen, the only exhaust is water vapor – steam.

Fuel cells offer an alternative to cars which use solar power or batteries. Solar cars have been criticized because of their limited use if there is no sunlight. And cars that use electric batteries have several problems as well. First, the batteries must be recharged after about 50 miles. Plus, the batteries contain toxic chemicals and do not offer the same power output as gasoline engines.

One of the biggest obstacles for developing alternative fuel sources for automobiles have been the oil companies. These companies make a lot of money from selling fuel for automobiles. If fuel cells become popular, there will need to be a source of hydrogen fuel. Providing hydrogen fuel instead of gasoline can maintain a consumer outlet.

Already, prototypes have been developed for fuel-cell powered buses and golf carts. Eight major automobile companies are currently developing fuel cell cars in conjunction with the California Fuel Cell Partnership. While they are not widely marketed or used by consumers yet, fuel cells may one day be our main mode of transportation.

Activity
Use the sites Internet listed below to investigate how fuel cells work. Put together a presentation and show it to the class, explaining what you have discovered.

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Physics: Principles and Problems