Fuel cells are designed to convert the chemical energy of a conventional fuel into electrical energy by oxidizing the fuel electrochemically. Sir William Grove discovered the fuel cell principle in 1839. General Electric funded research in the 1950s to develop a prototype Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cell, and PEMs were used in early manned space flights in the United States.
Fuel cells offer many advantages over conventional electrical supply systems—such as batteries or electrical power generating plants, which convert thermal energy into mechanical energy, then into electricity. Both are inefficient compared to fuel cells. Using hydrogen and oxygen as fuel, a fuel cell’s only direct by-product in the production of electricity is water vapour.
|This demonstration electric bus was powered by Ballard fuel cells. (Courtesy Ballard Power Systems Inc.)|
Since the mid-1980s, Ballard Power Systems of Vancouver has been a world leader in the development of increasingly efficient and affordable fuel-cell technology. In Ballard PEM cells, two electrodes are separated by an electrolyte—a solid polymer layer that allows protons to be transmitted from one end to the other, thereby creating an electric current. Our Ballard fuel cell (990006) represents an early generation commercial cell. Twenty-four of these were used to power a demonstration electric bus. Current research and collaborations with auto companies will probably lead to cars powered entirely by fuel cells sometime during the life of the Innovation Canada exhibition. However, fuel cells have other, potentially even more important, uses such as powering small, highly efficient domestic power plants.