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Making a Hydrogen Fuel Cell

Written by Paulo Martirez on Thursday, June 07, 2007


A fuel cell is a device that converts a fuel such as hydrogen, alcohol, gasoline, or methane into electricity directly. A hydrogen fuel cell produces electricity without any pollution, since pure water is the only byproduct.

You can make a hydrogen fuel cell in your kitchen in just minutes.

Materials Needed:

• One foot of platinum coated nickel wire, or pure platinum wire.
• A popsicle stick or similar small piece of wood or plastic.
• A 9 volt battery clip.
• A 9 volt battery.
• Some transparent sticky tape.
• A glass of water.
• A volt meter.

Building Instructions:

1. The first step is to cut the platinum coated wire into two six inch long pieces, and wind each piece into a little coiled spring that will be the electrodes in our fuel cell. I wound mine on the end of the test lead of my volt meter, but a nail, an ice pick, or a coat hanger will do nicely as a coil form.

2. Cut the leads of the battery clip in half and strip the insulation off of the cut ends. Then we twist the bare battery lead wires onto the ends of the platinum coated electrodes, as shown in the photo. The battery clip will be attached to the electrodes, and two wires will also be attached to the electrodes, and will later be used to connect to the volt meter.

3. The electrodes are then taped securely to the popsicle stick. Last, the popsicle stick is taped securely to the glass of water, so that the electrodes dangle in the water for nearly their entire length. The twisted wire connections must stay out of the water, so only the platinum coated electrodes are in the water.

4. Now connect the red wire to the positive terminal of the volt meter, and the black wire to the negative (or "common") terminal of the volt meter. The volt meter should read 0 volts at this point, although a tiny amount of voltage may show up, such as 0.01 volts.

5. Your fuel cell is now complete.

To operate the fuel cell, we need to cause bubbles of hydrogen to cling to one electrode, and bubbles of oxygen to cling to the other. There is a very simple way to do this.

We touch the 9 volt battery to the battery clip (we don't need to actually clip it on, since it will only be needed for a second or two).

Touching the battery to the clip causes the water at the electrodes to split into hydrogen and oxygen, a process called electrolysis. You can see the bubbles form at the electrodes while the battery is attached.

Now we remove the battery. If we were not using platinum coated wire, we would expect to see the volt meter read zero volts again, since there is no battery connected.

However, platinum acts as a catalyst, something that makes it easier for the hydrogen and oxygen to recombine.

The electrolysis reaction reverses. Instead of putting electricity into the cell to split the water, hydrogen and oxygen combine to make water again, and produce electricity.

We initially get a little over two volts from the fuel cell. As the bubbles pop, dissolve in the water, or get used up by the reaction, the voltage drops, quickly at first, then more slowly.

After a minute or so, the voltage declines much more slowly, as most of the decline is now due only to the gasses being used up in the reaction that produces the electricity.

Notice that we are storing the energy from the 9 volt battery as hydrogen and oxygen bubbles.

We could instead bubble hydrogen and oxygen from some other source over the electrodes, and still get electricity. Or we could produce hydrogen and oxygen during the day from solar power, and store the gasses, then use them in the fuel cell at night. We could also store the gasses in high pressure tanks in an electric car, and generate the electricity the car needs from a fuel cell.

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  1. 1 comments: Responses to “ Making a Hydrogen Fuel Cell ”

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