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Not too long ago many people from around the world met in Canada to decide on a way beyond the durable but dirty fuel sources of today known as fossil fuels. They came to an agreement that the fuelcell, that produces "clean" energy by combining hydrogen and oxygen without combustion, was the way to go. Here is the interesting part: the people who met to talk about this way forward, were not the greens, but technical experts from the worlds biggest car manufactures, energy firms and research laboratories. The entire thing was organized by the new hydrogen division of BP an oil giant. The reason for all this is that after 150 years after it's invention the fuel cell could become a commercial reality.
In other words the fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, while avoiding combustion of any form and emissions only of water and heat. There are various different types of fuel cell, being worked on but the most promising one is the "Proton-exchange membrane". This is how it works, it has two electrodes an anode and a cathode, with a polymer membrane serving as an electrolyte in the middle (see illustration above). At the anode hydrogen gives up it's electron with encouragement from the catalyst. While the hydrogen protons slip throught the membrane the electrons are made to go round an external circuit that can be used to power a car computer! When the protons reach the cathode, they join with the electrons and join with the oxygen from the air to create heat and water. The result is "clean" energy with no harmful emissions.
Already it seems that the electricity industry is going to change radically with the introduction of fuel cells, in the form of "micropower". Given the problems of todays battery-powered portable devices, it seems logical that the new fuel cells will be used to power anything from a Laptop to a virtual pet, or a watch.
Some people think that the fuel cells will reach the point where they become the power source of choice for transport of all types. Nearly all of the worlds motor manufactures are trying to develop fuel cell powered cars and vehicles. They are all being supported by Governments from around the world using threats like "Zero emission vehicle". Many Governments are pouring billions of dollars into fuelcell research, and vow to have fuel cell powered vehicles on the market by 2004!
The fuel cell revolution, could be set to transform the world, but there is just one slightly awkward problem. The world is just not set up to deliver hydrogen on demand. There will be big problems in changing petro ports around the world into hydrogen plants.
In that regard the fuel cell researches fall into two groups, one group thinks that hydrogen infrastructre will be far too costly to be of any value for years to come, and the other thinks that the amount needed will be much less, and insists that going direct to Hydrogen is the only good solution.