~Meniscus Archives~
Summer/Fall 2005
Issue #8

Issue #8 Home


Fuel Cell Technology Will Change Our World
Paul Matthews and Jon Heinrich
Quite simply, hydrogen fuel cells are like batteries, except they never run dry as long if constantly supplied with fuel and air. The fossil fuel shortage is about to catapult this technology to the forefront of industry to facilitate off-the-grid living.

A Short History of Nearly Everything
A review by Chrystie Hopkins
This 2003 best seller from author Bill Bryson takes the reader from the birth of the universe all the way through the lucky breaks we have experienced as a species to allow us to be standing here now. Truly a miracle!

Supplemental Thinking
Meniscus Magazine is here to support mind expansion. Take a moment to focus on chemical science! Find out what nutrients from the health food store can revitalize your precious grey area.

Sunshine is a State of Mind
Seasonal depression is real. Getting enough Vitamin D means nothing but fun in the sun! How much do I need? Glad you asked!
$300 Billion Dollars for WAR!
Compiled by Chrystie Hopkins
It is difficult to understand what $300 billion dollars is equivalent to, it is beyond comprehension. Here are some facts to put it in perspective.
Cindy Sheehan, WMD and Bush's Pretext
for Waging War on Iraq

Jason Leopold
Still trying to figure out what’s eating Cindy Sheehan? Perhaps its that none of the intelligence that president Bush used to rationalize the war has ever panned out. WMDs, ballistic missiles, unmanned drones... Whatever Cindy, get over it!


Published 9/18/05
Photo: Nasa (ISS0063E30524)

In its purest form, a fuel cell is like a battery. The difference is that it never runs dry as long as you keep supplying it with fuel and air. As opposed to today’s widespread power generation techniques, fuel cells contain no moving parts to wear out and produce a miniscule amount of by-products. Instead of burning fossil fuel compounds and creating literally tons of waste in the form of air pollution, this new technology provides a venue where molecules are exchanged in a chemical process that creates electricity.

Best case scenario: Off the grid
The most practical near-term applications of fuel cell technology is off-the-grid power generation at office buildings and small communities via an on-site fuel cell stack. Once the semi-portable device is cost-effectively manufactured, they can be extended to third world countries that lack infrastructure to support traditional, industrial-era power grid. This low impact power generation has dramatic potential here.

The second tangible benefit is the lack of by products, i.e. pollution. Burning coal creates literally tons of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide that is released into the environment. However by converting hydrogen-based petrochemicals to electricity is a very clean, efficient process. Because the process involves a chemical reaction, the only waste product is what goes in.

The best fuel found in relative abundance right now is methane gas or CH4. As you can tell from the equation, there are four hydrogen atoms available and two carbon atoms that will be left over as a by-product. This carbon by-product then can be put to use by adding to a garden or using it to filter water.

Other candidates include natural gas, however the disadvantage being the addition of other elements such as sulphur into the system, which produces poisonous sulphur gas as a by-product. Overall, the more hydrogen molecules in relation to other elements in the fuel, mean a cleaner “burning” fuel. (Although no combustion takes place.)

Standardization of fuel is currently an important goal of the scientific community as the dwindling supplies of fossil fuel are becoming more evident. A standard fuel will then lead to standardization of gas tanks and refueling infrastructures—all required to implement hydrogen fuel cell technology on a larger scale.

Ending the geopolitical struggle
The benefits of clean efficient fuel reach far beyond your winter heating bill. Right now, China and other developing third world countries are in the process of industrialization. As we saw in this country over the past century, industrialization by means of fossil fuel causes tremendous havoc on the environment. We’re only just beginning to see those effects now. The fossil fuel supply fall far short of the demand brought on by these countries and the environmental consequences could be drastic. Now that supplies are diminishing, global conflict is on the rise as each country scrambles to secure as much energy as possible.

Another major benefit of fuel cell technology would be to curb this global conflict. Just imagine if the United States didn’t care about what was under Iraq. Suffice it to say that if the U.S. was not dependent on the oil in the middle east, there would not be 100,000 + troops over there in harm’s way. Tomorrow’s terrorists wouldn’t have as much opportunity for target practice.

Chemistry creating energy
A fuel cell consists of an anode and a cathode separated by a electrolyte, much like a battery consists of two different metals separated by a conductive liquid. On the anode side of the equation, there is an abundance of hydrogen atoms that consist of the system’s fuel, typically supplied as a petrochemical gas. On the cathode side, oxygen is supplied together with a catalyst. The two different elements, hydrogen (H) and oxygen (O) naturally want to be together to create water, H2O. This tendency creates a potential across the electrolyte, which is measured electrically speaking, by voltage.

A voltage potential is kind of like an apple and gravity. Holding the apple four feet off the ground will create four feet of potential. This tendency to move with gravity is analogous to what happens in the middle of a fuel cell across the electrolyte. Think of it kind of like a single’s bar where men and women go to succumb to their magnetism for each other and come together. But just the presence of men and women don’t guarantee interaction, you need alcohol—the catalyst! In the fuel cell world, this catalyst is simply an electrical load applied to the circuit. In other words, you need to add a little energy to start creating energy.

When oxygen is applied to the cathode, the catalyst helps by breaking the oxygen bonds down by giving each atom a negative one charge. These unbalanced atoms then, move through from the cathode chamber to the electrolyte, through a three-phase boundary. Once the oxygen atom reaches the electrolyte, it moves across the space between the cathode and anode, looking for a positive charge to balance its negative charge. The very specific porosity of the electrolyte controls the flow, otherwise the system would short out.

When the oxygen atom bonds with protons and electrons on the other side, water is created (H2O) along with electricity and heat. And this is what we use as power!

Right now there are many different types of fuels being researched, but the best fuel sources are hydro-carbon gasses such as methane and natural gas. The purest and most efficient gasses are compounds that contain little or no other elements besides hydrogen and carbon, that can hinder the chemical process or create unruly by products.

Currently the main obstacles to implementation on a grand scale are materials engineering, cost per kilowatt and standardization of technology.

We're on our way!
Its amazing what humankind can create in a time of need. The world is growing faster than fossil fuels can support. Not only are we looking at the inevitable end of fossil fuel production to supply our needs, the environment is starting to show signs of wear and tear. Luckily fuel cell technology has been around since the advent of the steam engine and the scientists of the world have decided its time to figure this out.

Once scientists break through the current obstacles, people all around the world will reap the benefits of hydrogen fuel cell technology. Imagine, instead of war and global warming, we can live off the grid and grow organic vegetables with our electricity exhaust!

Jon Heinrich


Meniscus Magazine © 2005. All material is property of respective artists.