Fuel Cell FAQs

Updated February 12, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

The following frequently asked questions about fuel cells were provided courtesy of Fuel Cells 2000, a nonprofit advocacy organization.

  • What is a fuel cell? In principle, a fuel cell operates like a battery. It supplies electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen electrochemically without combustion. Unlike a battery, a fuel cell does not run down or require recharging. It will produce energy in the form of electricity and heat as long as fuel is supplied. The only “waste” is pure, drinkable water. A fuel cell consists of two electrodes sandwiched around an electrolyte. Oxygen passes over one electrode and hydrogen over the other, generating electricity, water, and heat.
  • Where did fuel cells come from? The first fuel cell was built in 1839 by Sir William Grove, a Welsh judge and gentleman scientist. Serious interest in the fuel cell as a practical generator did not begin until the 1960s, when they were chosen as the fuel of choice for the U.S. space program over nuclear power, considered too risky, and solar energy, considered too expensive. Fuel cells furnished power for the Gemini and Apollo spacecrafts, and provide electricity and water for the space shuttle.
  • What sort of fuels can be used in a fuel cell? Fuel cells can run on a variety of fuels, including hydrogen, methanol, ethanol, natural gas, and liquefied petroleum gas. Energy from biomass, wind, and solar sources can also be used. Because they function on such diverse input, fuel cells are a logical choice to transition from current technologies to renewable energy sources.
  • Which type of fuel cell is best? According to a recent study by Arthur D. Little, Inc., there is no single “winner” that will eclipse other types of fuel cells because the market for fuel cells is so diverse, ranging from large utility power plants to automobiles. The attributes of each fuel cell make it particularly suited to certain applications; for example, the gasoline fuel cell (when it is developed) will be most useful in electric cars. Though the hydrogen fuel cell is not suited to this application, it does not mean that the gasoline fuel cell is “better.” No single type of fuel cell is best; each is suited to a particular purpose.
  • Where were fuel cells developed? The first commercial fuel cell to run on renewable fuel was dedicated in June 1996 at a landfill in Groton, Connecticut, ushering in a new era in energy generation. The 200 KW fuel cell system is used to clean up landfill gas and convert its methane to electricity, which is fed into a nearby power grid.
  • Additional information about fuel cells. Readers may write to Fuel Cells 2000, an activity of the Breakthrough Technologies Institute at 1625 “K” Street NW, Suite 790, Washington, DC 20006. Phone: 202-785-9620, Fax: 202-785-9629, or visit their web site at: www.fuelcells.org .

Fuel Cells 2000 provides information to policy makers and the public; supports the early utilization of fuel cells through pilot projects and government purchases; fosters education and training for the legal and regulatory communities for fuel cells and related technologies.

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