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Oswego Career Ladders - Fuel Cell

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Fuel Cell

Fuel cells have the potential to revolutionize the way we power our nation, offering cleaner, more-efficient alternatives to the combustion of gasoline and other fossil fuels. A fuel cell uses the chemical energy of hydrogen to cleanly and efficiently produce electricity, with water and heat as by products. Fuel cells are unique in terms of the variety of their potential applications; they can provide energy for systems as large as a utility power station and as small as a laptop computer. A single fuel cell consists of an electrolyte and two catalyst-coated electrodes (a porous anode and cathode).

A fuel cell is an electrochemical energy conversion device. The other electrochemical device that we are all familar with is the battery. A battery has all of its chemicals stored inside, and it converts those chemicals into electricity too. This means that a battery eventually "goes dead" and you either throw it away or recharge it. With a fuel cell, chemicals constantly flow into the cell so it never goes dead -- as long as there is a flow of chemicals into the cell, the electricity flows out of the cell. Most fuel cells in use today are hydrogen and oxygen as the chemicals.

The fuel cell will compete with many other types of energy conversion devices, including the gas turbine and the gasoline engine in your car and the battery in your laptop. Combustion engines like the turbine and gasoline engine burn fuels and use the pressure created by the expansion of the gases to do mechanical work. Batteries converted chemical energy back into electrical energy when needed. Fuel cells should do both tasks more efficiently.

A fuel cell provides a DC (direct current) voltage that cab be used to power motors, lights or any number of electrical appliances.

There are several different types of fuel cells, each using a different chemistry. Fuel cells are usually classified by the type of electrolyte they use. Some types of fuel cells work well for use in stationary power generation plants. Others may be useful for small portable applications or powering cars.

The amount of power produced by a fuel cell depends on several factors, including fuel cell type, cell size, the temperature at which it operates, and the pressure at which the gases are supplied to the cell. A single cell produces enough electrcity for only the smallest applications, individual fuel cells are combined in series.

Careers in the Fuel Cell Industry
There are several different paths, depending on what you like to do. As you read the descriptions, remember that there is some crossover of abilities of the different fields. These crossovers depend on the specialization of the education systems as well as the specializtion within a given profession.

Bachelors Degree or Higher

Physicists and Chemists - Determine the behavior of reactants at the atomic level given their knowledge of molecular structures and different types of bonding. This understanding allows scientists to explain why some catalysts are better than others and to determine which elements or alloys will make the best catalysts.  Physicists earn from $62,000/yr. for a BS, to $91,000/yr. for PhD.  Chemists earn from $32,000/yr. for a BS, to $65,000/yr. for a PhD.

Material Scientists - design and develop better catalysts, more conductive membranes, and lighter, stronger, and less corrosive stack components. For example, methanol is a corrosive fuel that dries-out rubber parts in a system (o-rings, hoses, gaskets), causing them to fail. Material scientists fabricate materials that will perform the same functions as the old parts but withstand the effects of methanol. A fuel cell's reactants (fuel, oxidants) need to evenly access the electrode catalyst.  Materials Scientists earn $40,000-$70,000/yr.

Fluid Flow Engineers - Can map the fuel pathway in a fuel cell stack, using predictions of pressure gradients, to make sure that the fluid path is "optimal" ­ minimizing the waste of fuel. Not only must the flow of fuel be carefully controlled to obtain the best performance, the cell and fuels must be maintained at specific temperatures.  Fluid Flow Engineers earn $62,000-$91,000/yr.

Controls Engineers - Determine the flowrate and the temperature settings and specify the type of control system, while electrical/computer engineers design hardware, write software, and program the remote controls of the system.  Controls Engineers earn $62,000-$90,000/yr.

Ceramic Engineers -Understand the properties of ceramics and can design them with more desirable characteristics for solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs).  Ceramic Engineers earn $60,000-$90,000/yr.

Polymer Engineers - Design the chain structures of the polymers and attaching distinct chemical compounds that give the polymer special characteristics.  Polymer Engineers earn $62,000-$90,000/yr.

Mechanical Engineers - Design the piping and sizing of the system to fit the fuel cell and all its needed components into a certain configuration.  Mechanical Engineers earn $62,000-$74,000/yr.

Automotive Engineers - Incorporate the fuel cell system into a car, deciding the size of the system and the power requirements for cars, buses, and heavy-duty equipment.  Automotive Engineers earn $60,000-$72,000/yr.