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on fuel cells and electrolysers and other confusions

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Canto: So it seems the more you look towards future technologies, the more future technologies there are to look at. Funny that. Two future developments we want to focus on in these next few posts are the graphene aluminium ion batteries being researched and developed in Queensland for the world, and the whole field of green hydrogen technology, a topic we’ll start on today.

Jacinta: Yes and the two key terms which we’re hoping might enlighten us if we can get a handle on them are fuel cell and electrolyser.

Canto: But first, I’ve just watched a brief video, admittedly five years old, a lifetime it seems in nuevo-tech terms, in which Elon Musk, who I’ve generally considered a hero, describes hydrogen fuels as silly, and seems at the end to be lost for words in expressing his contempt for the technology.

Jacinta: Yes, and the video appears to have been unearthed recently because all the comments, mostly well-informed (as far as I can discern) are only months old, and contradict Musk’s claims. But let’s not dwell on that. What is a fuel cell?

Canto: Well, we’re looking at the possibility of fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), which presumably will operate in direct competition with Tesla’s EVs. Interestingly, one of the claimed deficits of EVs is their long charging times, which the new graphene-aluminium ion technology should greatly reduce. If FCEVs become a thing, the ‘old’ battery driven things will become known as BEVs, even before the EV term has really caught on.. Anyway, fuel cells produce electricity. You don’t have to plug them in, according to BMW.com (which may have a bias towards hydrogen in terms of investment). However, they don’t really show how the hydrogen is produced, and their image, shown above, presents a hydrogen tank without explaining where the hydrogen comes from.

Jacinta: Yes, so here’s how BMW.com begins its explanation:

In fuel cell technology, a process known as reverse electrolysis takes place, in which hydrogen reacts with oxygen in the fuel cell. The hydrogen comes from one or more tanks built into the FCEV, while the oxygen comes from the ambient air. The only results of this reaction are electrical energy, heat and water, which is emitted through the exhaust as water vapor. So hydrogen-powered cars are locally emission-free…

Canto: Which explains nothing much so far. Hydrogen reacts with oxygen. How? By reverse electrolysis. What’s that? The name implies splitting by electricity (but in reverse?), but I’d like more detail.

Jacinta: Yeah we’ll have to go elsewhere for that. In the image above you see a battery pack, much smaller than those in EVs, and an electric engine or motor. The BMW site reckons that the generated electricity from the fuel cell can either flow directly to the electric motor, powering the vehicle, or it can go to the battery, called a ‘peak power battery’, which stores the energy until needed by the motor. Being constantly recharged by the fuel cell, it’s only a fraction of the size of an EV battery.

Canto: Okay, that’s the BMW design, but I want the science nitty-gritty. I’ve heard that fuel cells go back a long way.

Jacinta: Yes, and we may need several posts to get our heads around them. I’ll start with the English engineer Francis Thomas Bacon (illustriously named), who developed the first alkaline fuel cell, or hydrogen-oxygen fuel cell, also known as the Bacon fuel cell, in the 1930s. This type of fuel cell has been used by NASA since the sixties. But the Wikipedia article again skips some steps.

Canto: So alkaline is the opposite of acidic, sort of, and car batteries require acid, but I don’t know what the difference is, in electrical terms.

Jacinta: Hopefully all will be revealed. One basic thing I’ve learned is that a fuel cell requires a cathode, an anode (collectively, two electrodes) and an electrolyte. So let’s take this slowly. The cathode is the one from which the conventional current departs – CCD, cathode current departs. Conventional current is defined as the direction of the positive charge. In the case of hydrogen, that’s just protons. The electrons go in the opposite direction. The anode, which maybe I should’ve mentioned first, is the electrode through which a conventional current enters the fuel cell or device. Think ACID, anode current into device. Now, the cathode and anode must be made of particular materials, which presumably relate to the fuel you’re trying to split, or electrolyse.

Canto: Hmmm, I’m wondering if a fuel cell and an electrolytic cell are the same thing, or one is a subset of the other. Apparently not, according to Wikipedia.

For fuel cells and other galvanic cells, the anode is the negative terminal; for electrolytic cells (where electrolysis occurs), the anode is the positive terminal. Made from, with, or by water.

So, shit, what’s a galvanic cell and how does it differ from an electrolytic cell? From the above description, it sounds like an electrolytic cell (anode positive) is the opposite of a fuel/galvanic cell (anode negative). We need to know what electrolysis actually means – not to mention galvanisis. And I believe reverse electrolysis is a thing.

Jacinta: Shit indeed. So at least from the above we know that electrolysis always involves water. Or does it? Okay, a galvanic cell, also known as a voltaic cell (Luigi Galvani, Alessandro Volta) combines two metals and an electrolyte (in Galvani’s case, a frog’s leg). Galvani and others thought the frog, or some other creature, was necessary for the current – ‘animal electricity’ became a thing for a while. Volta showed that this was not the case, though there was much argy-bargy for a while. But enough easy history, we need to tackle tough science.

Canto: So I don’t know if the currently titled hydrogen fuel cells are correctly described as alkaline fuel cells, but there are some videos, such as one by Philip Russell, describing very simple hydrogen fuel cells, driving a small fan. Russell explains the process very carefully, and I’ll go through it myself for my understanding. He has a tiny blue fuel cell connected by two tubes to two glasses of water. In one glass, hydrogen will be collected from one side of the cell, and oxygen from the other side in the other glass. He connects the fuel cell to a small solar panel via two wires, one red one black. He says that ‘to the negative side [holding the black wire] I’m going to connect to the side [of the cell] that produces hydrogen and the positive side [red] I’m going to connect to the side that produces hydrogen’. And now I’m confused. Both sides will produce hydrogen? How? What does that even mean?

Jacinta: In DC circuitry, black is conventionally negative and red positive. The difference between AC and DC may have to be explored because I think it’s relevant to all this nuevo-tech. Now, considering that Russell plugged the wires into opposite sides of the cell and said twice ‘the side that produces hydrogen’, the logical conclusion is that he made a mistake, but I can’t be sure. After all, what does he want to produce other than hydrogen?

Canto: Actually he said that one of the glasses will be collecting oxygen, so clearly he should’ve said oxygen for one of those two sides. But which one? Let’s continue with the video. So he’s connected the solar panel to the cell and he says ‘now we can collect solar energy and turn it into hydrogen and oxygen’. So the mistake hypothesis seems right, and that might have to be clarified with other videos. We plan to look at about a hundred of them, because our skulls are thick. So Russell next takes us inside the fuel cell. The outside is of blue-tinted glass or plastic. Inside we see ‘a perforated metal sheet’ (at least on one side). Apparently this is a hydrogen flow field, which ‘allows the hydrogen gas to escape from the fuel cell’. This again makes little sense to me. How did the hydrogen get in there in the first place? Hopefully all will be explained – or not. Next to, or behind this flow field is an anode consisting of a palladium catalyst. And in a fuel cell, the anode is negative.

Jacinta: According to Britannica, palladium is a type of platinum metal which makes an excellent catalyst:

Because hydrogen passes rapidly through the metal at high temperatures, heated palladium tubes impervious to other gases function as semipermeable membranes and are used to pass hydrogen in and out of closed gas systems or for hydrogen purification.

Canto: Good, so between the two electrodes is our electrolyte, consisting of a polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) which ‘allows the transfer of the hydrogen gas and hydrogen ions’. Again this isn’t particularly enlightening but we’ll explore it later. Next to the the electrolyte membrane is the cathode (positive), and then comes the oxygen flow field, ‘which allows the oxygen to come in and escape from the fuel cell’. Again unclear.

Jacinta: It’s a start, sort of. We’ll glean what we can from this little video and supplement it from other videos and info sites. So electricity is coming into the fuel cell which breaks down the water coming from the two glass jars. I’m confused, though, about the glass jars and the tubes leading to, or from, the fuel cell. They’re filled with water (which I’m presuming is highly purified) and they’re delivering water to either side of the fuel cell, via these tubes, which are attached, in each of the glasses, to something like a suction cup, which will, it seems, have something to do with gas coming from the fuel and being sent through the tube to the bottom of the glass jars – hydrogen along one tube, oxygen along the other. So the water is presumably being depleted from the jars and the two gasses are being collected at the bottom of the jars, to judge from the look of the setup. But how are these tubes able to deliver water one way and collect gas in the other direction at the same time?

Canto: Haha and we’re only halfway through this teeny video. And we next go to a diagram which again upsets our thinking, as it shows the anode as positive, whereas Wikipedia says the anode is negative in fuel cells. It seems we’re being stumped by nomenclature. What Philip Russell is demonstrating appears to be an electrolytic cell or an electrolyser, but it’s being called a fuel cell. A website from energy-gov, linked below, has a diagram of a fuel cell/electrolyser very similar to Russell’s. They call it an electrolyser. They’re conspiring to confuse us!

Illustration of a PEM electrolyzer

 

Jacinta: Anyway, Russell explains his thingummmy, and I quote: ‘We have, in the middle, this polymer electrolyte membrane [PEM] surrounded by the electrodes, and on either side, the anode and cathodes[!]. When we start, water enters through the anode, and here, when it reaches the cathode and anode [!] things start to happen. The water is broken down into hydrogen ions by the electrons in the battery, and this then produces oxygen gas. The hydrogen ions travel across/through the PEM where they are reacted with electrons and this forms hydrogen gas which escapes through to the cathode side of the fuel cell’.

Canto: Yes, clear as far as it goes. So this is electrolysis he’s talking about isn’t it? Is it really this simple? Probably not, in scaled up versions. Anyway, Russell finishes up by disconnecting his wires from the solar panel and connecting them to a small fan, which immediately starts to function. The fuel cell has reversed, according to Russell, and is producing electricity from H2 and O2. 

Jacinta: Yes, the way he presents it, it’s all very simple. But I don’t think so. We’ve scratched the surface of this technology, and informed ourselves in very small part, but there’s a long way to go. We need to struggle on, in our brave, heroic way.

 

References

https://www.bmw.com/en/innovation/how-hydrogen-fuel-cell-cars-work.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alkaline_fuel_cell

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galvanic_cell

https://www.britannica.com/science/palladium-chemical-element

https://www.energy.gov/eere/fuelcells/hydrogen-production-electrolysis

 

Written by stewart henderson

July 3, 2021 at 11:50 am