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The concept of a fuel cell is not new. As a matter of fact, the concept of the fuel cell was developed in 1838 by a German scientist named Christian Friedrich Schonbien. In 1845, Welsh scientist Sir William Robert Grove took this concept and developed the world’s very first fuel cell. However, technology has come a long way since then and we now use the fuel cell in a variety of applications.
A micro fuel cell is a transportable power source that produces electrical energy from chemical energy. In general, a fuel cell works under the same principle, but is larger than its micro counterpart, and can have various types of fuel sources. Used as a power source for small electronic devices, a micro fuel cell is a specific type of fuel cell, which uses methanol as its fuel source.
A micro fuel cell consists of a membrane that has a catalyst on either side. A catalyst is an agent used to create a chemical reaction, which in the case of a micro fuel cell is water. The anode catalyst will react with the methanol fuel while the cathode catalyst reacts with air.
On the anode side of the micro fuel cell, the water and methanol produce protons, electrons, and carbon dioxide. The electrons are directed to flow through wires in the electrical system that the micro fuel cell is powering while the protons are directed to the cathode catalyst side of the fuel cell membrane. The only thing that's left in the anode side is the carbon dioxide, which is emitted into the air.
On the layer with the cathode catalyst, the electrons and protons meet up again and react with the oxygen and produce water vapor. The water vapor (and heat) are then emitted into the air.
Fuel cells are beneficial for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the biggest advantage the fuel cell provides is that it typically can pack more power in a smaller amount of space (i.e., high energy density) and therefore provide a longer use time. For electronic equipment that eats up a lot of power and doesn't have a lot of space to house a large battery, like laptops, digital cameras, smartphones, and PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants), the micro fuel cell can come in handy.