There was a time when the term “fuel cell” was linked almost exclusively with America’s space program. The fuel cells in space used hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity for manned spacecraft, with the side benefit of producing drinking water. Few people will forget the near loss of Apollo 13 when a short circuit ignited oxygen inside a fuel cell tank. The resulting explosion crippled the craft, which eventually made it back to earth thanks to a level of creativity and intensity on the part of the crew and ground support personnel that can only be described as heroic. But fuel cells were around long before all that, and are now taking on a major role in more down-to-earth applications.
Fuel cells are electrochemical devices that convert a fuel, such as methanol or hydrogen, into electricity without burning. The principle behind the fuel cell was described as far back as 1838, and was demonstrated in England shortly thereafter. Not much happened with fuel cell technology until the 1950s, when General Electric (NYSE: GE) significantly improved the design, later used in the early years of the U.S. space program. United Technologies (NYSE: UTX) went on to supply fuel cells for the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs.
Fuel cells have a number of advantages over other power sources.
• Fuel cells are highly efficient at converting chemical energy into electrical energy.
• Since they do not involve combustion, and do not have any moving parts, fuel cells are extremely reliable, allowing operation for long periods in remote locations.
• Depending upon the fuel being used, fuel cells can be very compact and lightweight, especially useful for mobile applications.
• Unlike a battery, the fuel is stored separately from the fuel cell, allowing the fuel cell itself to remain small and inexpensive even in extended use applications requiring a lot of fuel.
• It can be combined with fuel generation systems, such as a solar power system that extracts hydrogen from water.
Although fuel cells have been developed and used in certain residential, commercial, and research environments, as well as some automobiles, ships, submarines, airplanes, and of course spacecraft, their widespread application has been limited due to a variety of technology and infrastructure issues.
The future of fuel cells appears more solid for use as mobile auxiliary power units in large vehicles, or as an optional stationary generator for some homes and businesses, though they could also eventually be used on a larger scale to generate low emission power for the grid.
Some well known publicly traded companies involved in such fuel cells applications include:
• Ballard Power Systems (NASDAQ: BLDP)
• Plug Power (NASDAQ: PLUG)
• FuelCell Energy, Inc. (NASDAQ: FCEL)
• Proton Energy Systems, Inc. (NASDAQ: PRTN)
There is one company, however, that is focusing on much more compact applications of fuel cell technology. VIASPACE, Inc. (OTCBB: VSPC) has developed and manufactures disposable methanol fuel cartridges that provide energy for fuel cell powered notebook computers, mobile phones, military equipment, and other small scale applications. It is estimated that nearly a quarter of all notebook computers could be powered by fuel cells in the future. The reason: Imagine having a notebook computer that will run for days or weeks without recharging, and, when it does eventually run low, you simply and quickly pop in a new fuel cartridge. For you, it means on-the-road convenience. For VIASPACE, it means the potential of selling three billion cartridges a year. And that’s about as down to earth as you can get.
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