Plants for the Distributed Generation: fuel cells

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by Maria Rosaria Barbato

Fuel cells allow to obtain electrical energy without any thermal combustion but through an electrochemical process. 

The operation consists in a process of reverse electrolysis in which the hydrogen introduced through a catalytic metal membrane combines with oxygen to form steam: this process releases approximately the same amount of electricity than the decomposition. 

As standard batteries, a fuel cell consists of:

- an anode, a porous structure on which hydrogen oxifates;

- a cathode, a thin porous structure, on which the electrons coming from the anode reduce the oxygen;

- an electrolyte interposed between the two structures, through which ions move from the anode to the cathode.

The fuel cell differs from the battery as it does not accumulate the chemical potential energy; in fact, fuel is supplied from the outside, so operation is continuous. Furthermore, these cells produce continuous energy, so they require transformers to convert it to AC power. 

The substances that act as electrodes are gaseous (hydrogen at the anode and oxygen to the cathode) and both allow the generation of electricity and supply power to the system. Fuel cells can reach an efficiency greater than 80%, through the recovering of the heat produced.

Fuel cells differ depending on the chemical nature of the electrolyte and the temperature at which they work: 

- Low to medium-temperature fuel cells release temperatures between 60 and 200 ° C 

- High temperature cells develop heat up to a temperature of 1000 ° C. These are often used for applications that require both electricity and heat. 

A single cell produces a voltage of about 0.7 V: individual cells are then overlapped  and connected in series, so as to derive the desired value of the current voltage.  The structures obtained are simply called  "stacks"  and they are finally assembled into modules. 

These types of plants have a conversion efficiency of between 30 and 65% depending on the type of fuel and electrolyte used. 

The main advantage of fuel cells is to reduce, if not eliminate, the pollutant emissions of combustion because the amount of CO2 that is emitted during the electrochemical process is lower than that obtained for the combustion of traditional fuels; sometimes, it is zero. 

All byproducts of fuel cells can be used: the excess heat can serve to heating of buildings, while the distilled water that is obtained has applications in the food, hygienic and agricultural sector. A further advantage is the absence of moving parts, which ensures an easier and cheaper maintenance and also an increased durability and reliability, while reducing the running costs of the plant. 

The major limitation of these systems is the high cost of investment, that makes it preferable the use of turbines, microturbines and engines.

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