The Future Of Fuel Cells; July 1999; Scientific American Magazine; by Staff Editors; 2 Page(s)
In 1839 William R. Grove, a British physicist, demonstrated that the electrochemical union of hydrogen and oxygen generates electricity. Fuel cells based on this concept, however, remained little more than laboratory curiosities for more than a century, until the 1960s, when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration began deploying lightweight-and expensive-versions of the devices as power sources for spacecraft. Today the technology, which promises clean, efficient and quiet operation, is being touted for a host of applications, including cellular phones, laptop computers, automobiles and home power supplies.
But numerous hurdles loom. For starters, there is the question of fuel source. Liquid hydrogen, an energy-rich substance, must be stored at impractically low temperatures just above absolute zero. Methanol, a liquid at room temperature, contains abundant hydrogen, but extracting it usually entails reformation, a cumbersome chemical conversion. Furthermore, pricey platinum catalysts are often required. These and other factors complicate the basic design of fuel cells, often necessitating the addition of elaborate subsystems.