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Fuel Cells, How They Actually Work?

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Birken Vogt
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Joined: Thu Nov 10, 2005 7:53 pm

Fuel Cells, How They Actually Work?

Postby Birken Vogt » Thu Aug 10, 2017 9:13 pm

Trying to read about the hydrogen fuel cells I see at all the newer cell sites, I came upon a bunch of cheerleading about how great they are, how you don't have to rely on a diesel generator, etc.

But what good is that? Do they have a manifold of large CGA hydrogen cylinders in them or what? How are they refilled? Swap the cylinders or get a cascade truck up there?

Seems like if propane or diesel get low you can call around to Jim Bob's Oil and if he can't get there then Cletis Fuels might be able to. What to do if hydrogen runs low?

Am I missing something here?

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Re: Fuel Cells, How They Actually Work?

Postby Wowbagger » Fri Aug 11, 2017 3:13 am

No, not really. Ignoring the issue of where to get the fuel, the advantages of a fuel cell are that it can be quiet, has few moving parts, and emits only water vapor. It's basically a battery that isn't a sealed system, and can be refueled rather than being recharged.

But as you observed, it isn't a "primary" energy source like nuclear, coal(1) or oil(1) - it is a "secondary" source that only stores energy from some other source. If we did something like build tons of new fission plants, or if we cracked making fusion produce more useful energy than it takes to light off, or if we put a hydrogen cracker in every wind turbine, and we had a good way to move hydrogen around relatively safely, fuel cells would be wondrous.

Of course, moving hydrogen around is hard - if you want to liquefy it you need a lot of energy to cool it down, you need cryogenic vessels to contain it, and it *still* will leak out to an extent. If you just put it in a pressure vessel it will weaken it, it will diffuse through it, and you won't get a lot of it in the container relative to the mass of the container. You can try to absorb it into a zeolite or into sponge metal, but then you have to heat the storage material to drive the hydrogen off, and it still has a pretty poor storage density. The best method we have to store lots of hydrogen in a small volume is to bond a bunch of it to some carbon atoms - to make hydrocarbon fuel. But we currently have no fuel cell technology that can work on hydrocarbons, so you either have to crack the hydrogen off the carbon before use, or you use the whole lot by running a combustion engine of some sort.

(1) Technically, coal and oil are secondary in that they were "charged" by the sun millions of years ago, but since that charging didn't happen in our lifespan we can consider them primary for this discussion.
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Birken Vogt
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Re: Fuel Cells, How They Actually Work?

Postby Birken Vogt » Fri Aug 11, 2017 11:25 am

So which storage method are ATT, T-mobile, etc using in the boxes I am seeing and how are they getting refilled?

Birken Vogt
Posts: 262
Joined: Thu Nov 10, 2005 7:53 pm

Re: Fuel Cells, How They Actually Work?

Postby Birken Vogt » Fri Aug 11, 2017 8:01 pm

Thank you for that. It has some more meaningful information, but still a bit vague.

It appears they need a cascade truck to come to the site and fill. I have never seen one that I could identify as a hydrogen truck in person.

So my guess is this is still just a toy for the big boys, and we will stick to rotating machinery for now.

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