Fuel cells can directly convert chemical energy into electricity. Their construction is similar to that of batteries. They consist of individual cells that each have two electrodes (anode and cathode) that are separated by an electrolyte. One electrode is fed with hydrogen (H2), the other with oxygen (O2). These combine within the cell to form water (H2O), and a direct current flows via the electrodes. At the same, heat is generated that can also be used, or otherwise has to be removed via a cooler. Since a single cell only generate a very low voltage, a number of cells are switched (or piled) behind one another to form a fuell cell stack. The need for several conversion processes, e.g. as is the case in a combustion engine generator system (thermal, mechanical, electromagnetic energy) is eliminated. Fuel cell systems are therefore highly efficient energy conversion systems.
Fuel cells are suitable for a broad range of applications, e.g. for powering vehicles, for stationary energy supply, but also for powering small electronic devices.
For many years now, fuel cells have been regarded as one of the most promising future technologies. However, the technology is still a long way from full development, and the need for research and development in this area is thus very high. The main drawbacks of fuel cell technology at present are its limited service life, the high price of stacks and the costs of preparing the fuel.
Fuel cell research in Switzerland
In the area of fuel cells, research competencies primarily exist in the federal institutes of technology and their research centres (Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich; Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne; Paul Scherrer Institute; EMPA - Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research), but private sector companies are also becoming increasingly active in the areas of development and pilot projects.
The Fuel cells research programme of the SFOE is supporting these competence centres and bringing them closer together to form a network. The programme also supports the development of prototypes for the market, e.g. portable fuel cells (Powerpac), drives for light vehicles (SAM) and ships (Hydroxy). And in a separate project, the Paul Scherrer Institute joined forces with French group Michelin to develop a light vehicle (HY-LIGHT): the Swiss fuel cell drive attracted world-wide interest.