The world is looking to decarbonise its fuel and energy sources, and clean-burning hydrogen is poised to have a key role in energy storage. In certain applications where heat is required, hydrogen can directly replace carbonaceous fuels, such as in natural gas grids, but in other sectors, it is preferable to convert the hydrogen’s chemical energy directly into electricity, which is where fuel cells step in.
It was in 1842 that Sir William Grove, who would later become an expert on patent law, described the first hydrogen fuel cell. At the time this included alternating tubes of oxygen and hydrogen containing platinum foil in contact with dilute sulfuric acid. Although fuel cell technology has come a long way since then, the fundamental function remains largely unchanged.
Hydrogen fuel cells require an anode and a cathode connected by an electrical circuit and are physically separated by an electrolyte that controls the passage of ions. Hydrogen is fed to the anode, where a catalyst strips the hydrogen gas of its electrons to produce protons. The protons then travel through the electrolyte to the cathode where they are combined with oxygen to form water. The electrons travel to the cathode via the electrical circuit. This generates an electrical current, which can be used to power electrical systems connected to the fuel cell.
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