What’s a fuel cell?

A cross between a battery and a generator, the fuel cell uses a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen to create a current of electricity. Its only waste products are water (pure enough to drink, when straight hydrogen is the fuel), carbon dioxide, and a small amount of heat.

Although it sounds futuristic, this high-tech wonder — now touted as the savior of industrial society — is actually nothing new. Since the 1960s, NASA has relied on fuel cells to keep its astronauts alive in space. (Recall Tom Hanks’ anguished cry in Apollo 13: “We’ll never make it back to Earth on only one fuel cell!”) The military, meanwhile, has used them since the ’50s to power hand drills and other appliances in the field. The very first fuel cell, however — called a “gas battery” — was devised way back in 1839 by English patent lawyer and amateur chemist Sir William Robert Grove, who used it to prove what’s now known as the principle of reversibility of reactions. (Grove reasoned that, since an electrical charge can split water — H<->2<->O — into hydrogen and oxygen, then uniting the two elements should generate both water and electricity.) This was no mere theoretical curiosity, either: Banks of those early fuel cells powered the first American telegraphs.

And because hydrogen is one of the most common elements on earth, these remarkable machines can run on an astonishing variety of substances — not only pure hydrogen, but also ethanol, methanol, propane, borax, carbon monoxide and even sugar. Breathalyzers, for example, are fuel cells that use the alcohol in a drunk driver’s breath to generate an electrical current, which powers a measuring gauge. That driver, meanwhile, may be tanked up on beer made by one of the many breweries in the U.S., Europe and Japan whose entire operations are powered by fuel cells that run off the brewery’s own exhaust gases. (More than 100 landfills and wastewater-treatment plants in the U.S. alone are similarly self-sustaining.)

What’s more, fuel cells can be produced in all manner of sizes and capacities — small enough to power a pacemaker or a laptop computer (such as the one Casio has in the works, which will run off a 20-hour methanol cartridge), or large enough to power a car or even a hospital. Fuel cells can help conventional power plants meet peak electrical demand — or perhaps replace those facilities outright.

— Steve Rasmussen

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