2008 Special Project: Fuel Cell Technology
We first learned about electrochemical energy conversion devices, or fuel cells for short, during the FIRST 2006 build season. Jeff, one of our teammates, had developed a strong interest in fuel cell technology when we were visiting Cleveland for the FIRST Buckeye Regional Competition. Diane Sadowski, president of firstfuelcells.com, was giving a presentation about fuel cells, and
it sparked Jeff’s interest. He suggested we pursue the idea of obtaining and working with a fuel cell to power our VEX robot, so we decided to go for it.
The fuel cell works by combining hydrogen and oxygen to produce water, heat, and energy. Specifically, the hydrogen passes through a tube to a valve that measures the amount of hydrogen passing through. It is then forced through the cell from the cathode (positive) side while reacting with the oxygen that is entering through holes in the side of the cell. When the oxygen and hydrogen react, they form water vapor, a harmless byproduct. The electrons are not allowed to pass through the catalyst, or electron separation device, and so are rerouted to the mechanism that the cell is powering. The process repeats itself, so as to maintain the constant energy flow.
In the fall of 2007, we received the fuel cell in pieces, which consisted of two polycarbonate end plates, about twenty cells, cathodes, anodes, catalysts, separators, and some basic instructions. During assembly we had to be painstakingly careful not to damage the parts in any way, which meant we weren’t allowed to touch most of the pieces without gloves. After we assembled the fuel cell, we began working constantly with it. This experience has been great to be a part of, and has been very educational for us.
We spent many nights testing and experimenting with ideas on how to produce maximum power with minimum effort from our fuel cell. When we first built the fuel cell, we used ten of the twenty initial cells in the stack. It soon became apparent that this was not enough to power four motors for a VEX robot, so we increased the number to fourteen. When the number of cells was increased, we had more energy, but still not enough to power four motors, so we placed a fan by the cell to increase oxygen intake. When this was done, the four motors ran with energy to spare. We also tried using a heat gun with the fan to make the fuel cell more efficient, and it worked very well, but we quickly learned that the heat gun and the fan were NOT compatible, because the heat melted the fan. We are still trying to determine which fan will be the most efficient and are currently considering the idea of using two fans: one to push the oxygen into the cell and one to pull the oxygen through the cell to the other side.
Once testing to find the most effective way to power the fuel cell, we took the finished product to Discovery World to provide educational programs about how fuel cells work. Fuel cells aren’t just being used on robots. They are also being used in automobiles and are hoped to be on the market as affordable and practical alternatives to gasoline powered automobiles in the future. Our team found this experience quite enriching and is eager to participate in the effort to find cleaner and more efficient energy alternatives.