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Alkaline Fuel Cell

Alkaline Fuel Cell

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Published by Gurjot Benipal

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Published by: Gurjot Benipal on Jan 11, 2013
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The alkaline fuel cell (
AFC
), also known as the Bacon fuel cell after its British inventor, is one of the most developed fuel cell technologies. NASA has used alkaline fuel cells since the mid-1960s, in Apollo-series missions and on the Space Shuttle.AFCs consume hydrogen and pure oxygen producing potable water, heat, and electricity. They are among the most efficient fuel cells, having the potential to reach 70%.
Chemistry
The fuel cell produces power through a redox reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. At the anode,hydrogen is oxidized according to the reaction:producing water and releasing two electrons. The electrons flow through an external circuit andreturn to the cathode,reducing oxygen in the reaction: producing hydroxide ions. The net reaction consumes one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms in the production of one water molecule. Electricity and heat are formed as by-products of thisreaction.
Electrolyte
The two electrodes are separated by a porous matrix saturated with an aqueous alkaline solution, suchas potassium hydroxide (KOH). Aqueous alkaline solutions do not reject carbon dioxide (CO
2
) so the fuelcell can become "poisoned" through the conversion of KOH to potassium carbonate (K
2
CO
3
). Because of this, alkaline fuel cells typically operate on pure oxygen, or at least purified air and would incorporate a 'scrubber' into the design to clean out as much of the carbon dioxide as is possible. Because thegeneration and storage requirements of oxygen make pure-oxygen AFCs expensive, there are fewcompanies engaged in active development of the technology. There is, however, some debate in theresearch community over whether the poisoning is permanent or reversible. The main mechanisms of poisoning are blocking of the pores in the cathode with K
2
CO
3
, which is not reversible, and reduction inthe ionic conductivity of the electrolyte, which may be reversible by returning the KOH to its originalconcentration. An alternate method involves simply replacing the KOH which returns the cell back to itsoriginal output.
Basic designs
Because of this poisoning effect, two main variants of AFCs exist: static electrolyte and flowingelectrolyte. Static, or immobilized, electrolyte cells of the type used in the Apollo space craft andthe Space Shuttle typically use an asbestos separator saturated in potassium hydroxide. Waterproduction is managed by evaporation out the anode, as pictured above, which produces pure
 
water that may be reclaimed for other uses. These fuel cells typically use platinum catalysts toachieve maximum volumetric and specific efficiencies.Flowing electrolyte designs use a more open matrix that allows the electrolyte to flow eitherbetween the electrodes (parallel to the electrodes) or through the electrodes in a transversedirection (the ASK-type or EloFlux fuel cell). In parallel-flow electrolyte designs, the waterproduced is retained in the electrolyte, and old electrolyte may be exchanged for fresh, in amanner analogous to an oil change in a car . In the case of "parallel flow" designs, greater spaceis required between electrodes to enable this flow, and this translates into an increase in cellresistance, decreasing power output compared to immobilized electrolyte designs. A furtherchallenge for the technology is that it is not clear how severe is the problem of permanentblocking of the cathode by K
2
CO
3
, however, some published reports indicate thousands of hoursof operation on air. These designs have used both platinum and non-noble metal catalysts,resulting in increased volumetric and specific efficiencies and increased cost.The EloFlux design, with its transverse flow of electrolyte, has the advantage of low-costconstruction and replaceable electrolyte, but so far has only been demonstrated using oxygen.Further variations on the alkaline fuel cell include the metal hydride fuel cell and the direct borohydride fuel cell. 
Commercial prospects
AFCs are the cheapest of fuel cells to manufacture. The catalyst required for the electrodes canbe any of a number of different chemicals that are inexpensive compared to those required forother types of fuel cells.The commercial prospects for AFCs lie largely with the recently developed bi-polar plate versionof this technology, considerably superior in performance to earlier mono-plate versions.The world's first Fuel Cell Ship HYDRA used an AFC system with 6.5 kW net output. Another recent development is the solid-state alkaline fuel cell, utilizing alkali anion exchangemembranes rather than a liquid. This resolves the problem of poisoning and allows thedevelopment of alkaline fuel cells capable of running on safer hydrogen-rich carriers such asliquid urea solutions or metal amine complexes.
Alkaline Fuel Cells
 
Alkaline fuel cells (AFCs) were one of the first fuel cell technologiesdeveloped, and they were the first type widely used in the U.S.space program to produce electrical energy and water onboardspacecraft. These fuel cells use a solution of potassium hydroxide inwater as the electrolyte and can use a variety of non-precious metalsas a catalyst at the anode and cathode. High-temperature AFCsoperate at temperatures between 100°C and 250°C (212°F and482°F). However, newer AFC designs operate at lower temperaturesof roughly 23°C to 70°C (74°F to 158°F)
AFCs' high performance is due to the rate at which chemicalreactions take place in the cell. They have also demonstratedefficiencies near 60 percent in space applications.The disadvantage of this fuel cell type is that it is easily poisoned by carbon dioxide (CO
2
). Infact, even the small amount of CO
2
in the air can affect this cell's operation, making it necessaryto purify both the hydrogen and oxygen used in the cell. This purification process is costly.Susceptibility to poisoning also affects the cell's lifetime (the amount of time before it must bereplaced), further adding to cost.Cost is less of a factor for remote locations such as space or under the sea. However, toeffectively compete in most mainstream commercial markets, these fuel cells will have tobecome more cost-effective. AFC stacks have been shown to maintain sufficiently stableoperation for more than 8,000 operating hours. To be economically viable in large-scale utilityapplications, these fuel cells need to reach operating times exceeding 40,000 hours, somethingthat has not yet been achieved due to material durability issues. This is possibly the mostsignificant obstacle in commercializing this fuel cell technology.
 
 
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Methanol and Fuel Cells

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