Until recently, all motor vehicles were powered by gasoline and internal combustion engines. While effective and reliable, these systems cause considerable pollution—especially as the number of vehicle owners in the world continues to grow rapidly.
Manufacturers have developed cleaner power options for vehicles such as the electric car, or the gas/electric hybrid. The fuel cell is another option currently in development. A fuel cell is a highly efficient device that generates electricity. According to the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association, "fuel cells can run on a variety of fuels, including natural gas and hydrogen. Hydrogen is a clean, carbon-free fuel readily available from a variety of sources. When powered by hydrogen, fuel cells emit only water vapor as a byproduct. Fuel cells can run at any time of day and produce nearly zero noise. They are reliable, safe, and never need recharging."
Fuel cells work by using a chemical reaction instead of combustion (such as what is used in automotive engines). There are various types of fuel cells, such as the Polymer Electrolyte Membrane Fuel Cell (PEMFC) used in vehicles and the direct Methanol Fuel Cell (DMFC) used in portable electronics, and new types are being developed all the time. Visit the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association's Web site (http://www.fchea.org) for detailed descriptions of the various types of fuel cells.
In addition to use in powering motor vehicles, fuel cells are used in a wide range of applications, from stationary electricity generation to portable electronics. They are only in the developmental phase in the automobile industry, but are in regular use in markets in which they can provide performance and environmental benefits. These markets include back-up power systems, specialty vehicles (such as airport ground vehicles and fork lifts), portable power units, and combined heat and power production. Some major users of fuel cells include Walmart, eBay, Sheraton, Adobe Systems, BMW, Albertsons, Coca-Cola, Google, Hilton, FedEx, Staples, Verizon, and Sprint.
Two of the major technical occupations in the fuel cell technology industry are fuel cell engineers and fuel cell technicians.
Fuel cell engineers use their engineering expertise to design fuel cell systems, subsystems, stacks, assemblies, and components. They typically have backgrounds in chemical, electrical, industrial, materials, or mechanical engineering. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that the duties fuel cell engineers include: analyzing fuel cell or related test data, using statistical software; calculating the efficiency and power output of a fuel cell system or process; conducting post-service or failure analyses; developing fuel cell materials and fuel cell test equipment; and identifying and defining the vehicle and system integration challenges for fuel cell vehicles.
Fuel cell technicians build fuel cells and test and maintain electrical systems and power plant systems, including blowers, pumps, heat exchangers, and sensors. They also build prototypes according to the instructions of engineers and other scientists; collect, maintain, and study fuel cell test data via spreadsheets and computer databases; calibrate and maintain equipment; and report the results of fuel cell test results to engineers. Some work as fuel cell field technicians, providing maintenance and service for purchasers of fuel cells.
Other technical positions in the fuel cell technology industry include chemists, materials scientists, laboratory workers, factory workers, machinists, and power plant operators.
In addition to technical positions, support workers are needed to perform clerical duties; manage workers; sell, market, and advertise products; address legal issues; maintain records; and educate the public. Sales and marketing professionals, advertising workers, secretaries, receptionists, customer service representatives, media relations specialists, personnel and human resources specialists, lawyers, accountants, information technology workers, and educators are just some of the types of the support workers who are employed in this industry.
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