A Fuel Cell That Runs on Waste

Environmental engineers at Pennsylvania State University developed a fuel cell that runs on wastewater. The cell uses microbes to break down organic matter. The matter in turn releases hydrogen and electrons. The fuel cell can break down approximately 80 percent of the organic matter in wastewater, and like PEMFCs the output is heat and pure water. The energy generated by the fuel cell could help power a water treatment plant pump system.

International Partnership for the Hydrogen Economy

  • Australia
  • Brazil
  • Canada
  • China
  • European Commission
  • France
  • Germany
  • India
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • Korea
  • New Zealand
  • Norway
  • Russian Federation
  • Iceland
  • United Kingdom
  • United States

Why Use Fuel Cells?

Why is the U.S. government working with universities, public organizations and private companies to overcome all the challenges of making fuel cells a practical source for energy? More than a billion dollars has been spent on research and development on fuel cells. A hydrogen infrastructure will cost considerably more to construct and maintain (some estimates top 500 billion dollars). Why does the president think fuel cells are worth the investment?

The main reasons have everything to do with oil. America must import 55 percent of its oil. By 2025 this is expected to grow to 68 percent. Two thirds of the oil Americans use every day is for transportation. Even if every vehicle on the street were a hybrid car, by 2025 we would still need to use the same amount of oil then as we do right now [Source: Fuel Cells 2000]. In fact, America consumes one quarter of all the oil produced in the world, though only 4.6 percent of the world population lives here [Source: National Security Consequences of U.S. Oil Dependency].

Experts expect oil prices to continue to rise over the next few decades as more low-cost sources are depleted. Oil companies will have to look in increasingly challenging environments for oil deposits, which will drive oil prices higher.

Concerns extend far beyond economic security. The Council on Foreign Relations released a report in 2006 titled "National Security Consequences of U.S. Oil Dependency." A task force detailed numerous concerns about how America's growing reliance on oil compromises the safety of the nation. Much of the report focused on the political relationships between nations that demand oil and the nations that supply it. Many of these oil rich nations are in areas filled with political instability or hostility. Other nations violate human rights or even support policies like genocide. It is in the best interests of the United States and the world to look into alternatives to oil in order to avoid funding such policies.

Using oil and other fossil fuels for energy produces pollution. Pollution issues have been in the news a lot recently -- from the film "An Inconvenient Truth" to the announcement that climate change and global warming would factor into future adjustments of the Doomsday Clock. It is in the best interest for everyone find an alternative to burning fossil fuels for energy.

Fuel cell technologies are an attractive alternative to oil dependency. Fuel cells give off no pollution, and in fact produce pure water as a byproduct. Though engineers are concentrating on producing hydrogen from sources such as natural gas for the short-term, the Hydrogen Initiative has plans to look into renewable, environmentally-friendly ways of producing hydrogen in the future. Because you can produce hydrogen from water, the United States could increasingly rely on domestic sources for energy production.

Other countries are also exploring fuel-cell applications. Oil dependency and global warming are international problems. Several countries are partnering to advance research and development efforts in fuel cell technologies. One partnership is The International Partnership for the Hydrogen Economy.

Clearly scientists and manufacturers have a lot of work to do before fuel cells become a practical alternative to current energy production methods. Still, with worldwide support and cooperation, the goal to have a viable fuel cell-based energy system may be a reality in a couple of decades.

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