Fuel cells are important future sources of electrical power and could contribute to a reduction in the amount of petroleum
imported by the United States. They are electrochemical
devices similar to a battery and consist of a container, an anode, a cathode, catalysts, an intervening electrolyte, and an attached electrical circuit. In most fuel cell systems, hydrogen
is supplied to the anode and oxygen to the cathode which results in the production of electricity, water, and heat. Fuel cells are comparatively efficient and reliable, have no moving parts, operate without combustion, and are modular and scale-able. Their size and shape are flexible and adaptable. In operation,
they are nearly silent, are relatively safe, and generally do not pollute the environment.
During recent years, scientists and engineers have developed and refined technologies relevant to a variety of fuel cells. Types of fuel cells are commonly identified by the composition of their electrolyte, which could be either phosphoric acid, an alkaline solution, a molten carbonate, a solid metal oxide, or a solid polymer membrane. The electrolyte
in stationary power plants could be phosphoric acid, molten carbonates, or solid metal oxides. For vehicles and smaller devices, the electrolyte could be an alkaline solution or a solid polymer membrane. For most fuel cell systems, the fuel is hydrogen, which can be extracted by several procedures from many hydrogen-bearing substances, including alcohols, natural gas (mainly methane), gasoline, and water.
There are important and perhaps unresolved technical problems associated with using fuel cells to power vehicles. The catalysts required in several systems are expensive metals of the platinum group. Moreover, fuel cells can freeze and not work in cold weather and can be damaged by impacts. Storage tanks for the fuels, particularly hydrogen, must be safe, inexpensive,
of a reasonable size, and contain a supply sufficient for a trip of several hundred miles. Additional major problems will be the extensive and costly changes in the national infrastructure
to obtain, store, and distribute large amounts of the fuels, and in related manufacturing
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Alternative Sources of Energy - An Introduction to Fuel Cells