Fuel cells may breathe new life into future Christmas

December 20, 2002|by LISA TEDRICK PREJEAN

Fuel cells may breathe new life into future Christmas toys

Let's see.

I need six triple A's, four double A's, two C's, a 9-volt and my credit card.

Buy your batteries yet? Or is that on your last-minute list for this weekend?

After all, you can't give a gift that requires a battery and not include the battery, especially when children are involved. They'll think you're giving them damaged goods.

For the last eight years, I've faithfully performed my battery-buying parenting duty. (Although this year my dad picked them up. Thanks, Dad.)


I've thought about how dependent we as consumers are on these little energy-producing cells.

Can you imagine what it would be like if there were no batteries?

A decade or so from now, that may be the case, according to Ramesh Shah, a mechanical engineering research professor at Rochester Institute of Technology.

Toys will be powered by fuel cells, Shah predicts.

In a fuel cell, the consumption of fuel is assisted by the presence of a catalyst, a substance that is neither consumed nor produced, but still manages to help the reaction along, Dwight Schwartz of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Montana State University-Bozeman, explained via e-mail.

The fuel is simple - hydrogen is most commonly used.

In a hydrogen-powered fuel cell toy, the fuel would be contained in a metal that can store it.

The energy density of hydrogen stored in these metal hydrides exceeds rechargeable battery technologies, according to www.visio

Because of the high efficiency of fuel cells, little fuel will be needed to keep toys going, Shah says.

Unlike batteries, which contain chemicals that are not environmentally friendly, the only byproduct from a fuel cell is water or water vapor.

The only drawbacks at this point are cost and research. Scientists need to figure out ways to simplify the technology and make it affordable, Shah says.

According to Schwartz, it might be hard to do a fuel cell experiment at home because it's a rather complex thing to make something like this work.

If it weren't, fuel cells would already be just another item on our shopping list.

But once your children tire of their new toys, you can suggest that they check out what's up with this technology of the future.

The reaction shown on is the reverse of the hydrolysis reaction you may have done in chemistry class. Do you remember hooking a battery to two separated wires sitting in a pool of salt water? Bubbles form on the wires, because water was being hydrolyzed - broken down - into hydrogen and oxygen, Schwartz says. The hydrogen would form on the wire hooked up to the negative side of the battery, and the oxygen would form on the wire on the positive side of the battery.

The battery eventually discharges if you do this long enough.

First demonstrated in 1839 by William Grove, fuel cells are used in all U.S. manned space vehicles, according to In addition to providing electrical power, fuel cells also provide the astronauts with water for drinking, cooking and cooling.

In the future, likely uses of fuel cells will be in combined heat and power systems, electric vehicles and mobile equipment, such as phones, laptop computers ... and toys.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at

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