Fuel Cells - Page 2/3

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Fuel Cells - Page 2/3


Phosphoric Acid

Phosphoric acid fuel cells use liquid phosphoric acid as an electrolyte the acid is contained in a Teflon-bonded silicon carbide matrix and porous carbon electrodes containing a platinum catalyst. The chemical reactions that take place in the cell are shown in the diagram to the right. The phosphoric acid fuel cell (PAFC) is considered the "first generation" of modern fuel cells. It is one of the most mature cell types and the first to be used commercially, with over 200 units currently in use. This type of fuel cell is typically used for stationary power generation, but some PAFCs have been used to power large vehicles such as city buses.

PAFCs are more tolerant of impurities in the reformate than PEM cells, which are easily "poisoned" by carbon monoxide carbon monoxide binds to the platinum catalyst at the anode, decreasing the fuel cell's efficiency. They are 85 percent efficient when used for the cogeneration of electricity and heat, but less efficient at generating electricity alone (37 to 42 percent). This is only slightly more efficient than combustion-based power plants, which typically operate at 33 to 35 percent efficiency. PAFCs are also less powerful than other fuel cells, given the same weight and volume. As a result, these fuel cells are typically large and
heavy. PAFCs are also expensive. Like PEM fuel cells, PAFCs require an expensive platinum catalyst, which raises the cost of the fuel cell. A typical phosphoric acid fuel cell costs between $4,000 and $4,500 per kilowatt to operate.

Direct Methanol

Most fuel cells are powered by hydrogen, which can be fed to the fuel cell system directly or can be generated within the fuel cell system by reforming hydrogen-rich fuels such as methanol, ethanol, and hydrocarbon fuels. Direct methanol fuel cells (DMFCs), however, are powered by pure methanol, which is mixed with steam and fed directly to the fuel cell anode.
Direct methanol fuel cells do not have many of the fuel storage problems typical of some fuel cells since methanol has a higher energy density than hydrogen though less than gasoline or diesel fuel. Methanol is also easier to transport and supply to the public using our current infrastructure since it is a liquid, like gasoline.
Direct methanol fuel cell technology is relatively new compared to that of fuel cells powered by pure hydrogen, and research and development are roughly 3-4 years behind that of other fuel cell types.


Alkaline fuel cells (AFCs) were one of the first fuel cell technologies developed, and they were the first type widely used in the U.S. space program to produce electrical energy and water onboard spacecraft. These fuel cells use a solution of potassium hydroxide in water as the electrolyte and can use a variety of non-precious metals as a catalyst at the anode and cathode. High-temperature AFCs operate at temperatures between 100C and 250C (212F and 482F). However, more-recent AFC designs operate at lower temperatures of roughly 23C to 70C (74F to 158F).
AFCs are high-performance fuel cells due to the rate at which chemical reactions take place in the cell. They are also very efficient, reaching efficiencies of 60 percent in space applications. The disadvantage of this fuel cell type is that it is easily poisoned by carbon dioxide (CO2). In fact, even the small amount of CO2 in the air can affect the cell's operation, making it necessary to purify both the hydrogen and oxygen used in the cell. This purification process is costly.
Susceptibility to poisoning also affects the cell's lifetime (the amount of time before it must be replaced), further adding to cost.
Cost is less of a factor for remote locations such as space or under the sea. However, to effectively compete in most mainstream commercial markets, these fuel cells will have to become more cost effective. AFC stacks have been shown to maintain sufficiently stable operation for more than 8,000 operating hours. To be economically viable in large-scale utility applications, these fuel cells need to reach operating times exceeding 40,000 hours. This is possibly the most significant obstacle in commercializing this fuel cell technology.