Storing Energy: Fuel Cells and Beyond

Fuel input for hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered vehicle. Photo from Siemens PLM in Cypress California.

Storing energy is important for both long-term and short-term uses: to meet changes in energy supply and demand and to iron out irregularities in energy output, whether that’s in a car engine or on the power grid.

Unfortunately, we can only store a tiny fraction  of the electricity we produce in a single day. Instead, power plants have to send their thousands of megawatts of electricity to the right place, at the right time. For more details about electricity transmission, see Power Grid Technology.

Our current electric grid has various quick storage solutions to help make energy delivey smooth, and we use energy storage in cars, phones, and anything else that needs to be moved around. However, batteries and other storing options leave much to be desired.

Devices like capacitors and flywheels can store energy for extremely short periods.  Few technologies exist to store large amounts of energy over time periods ranging to several days: only pumped (water) storage is widely used to store energy on the scale of a power plant.

As energy sources are expanding to include more renewable and intermittent resources like wind and solar onto the electricity grid as we try to both meet growing energy demand and control greenhouse gas emissions. Likewise, there is increased interest in having reliable energy storage for vehicles, instead of gasoline and diesel fuels.



Depending on the type of battery, these devices can store energy on location, like at home or in the car, in a laptop or cell phone. Note that though batteries and fuel cells can help integrate renewable energy sources, most electricity is still generated from fossil fuels. Both charging batteries and making hydrogen for fuel cells  thus produce greenhouse gas through reliance on the prevailing sources of electricity, and using these devices is less efficient than plugging into the wall because there’s always energy loss to byproducts like heat.

Batteries store chemical energy. Chemical reactions in the battery release that energy as needed. Eventually all the starting materials of the reaction are consumed and the battery is dead, or at least unusable until it’s recharged. There are many kinds of batteries, made of a wide array of chemicals. Polysulfide Bromide (PSB), Vanadium Redox (VRB), Zinc Bromine (ZnBr), Hydrogen Bromine (H-Br), and sodium sulfide batteries are some that the electricity industry has interest in.

Electric utilities use lead-acid batteries, which can be recharged, but there is research into other materials for utility and transportation use. Some of the best batteries used today for cars are nickel metal hydride and lithium ion.



Hydrogen fuel cells aren’t the same as batteries, but they can serve a similar purpose. Fuel cells are lumped with batteries because they both function through stored chemical energy. However, in practice, fuel cells are more like engines. They run off hydrogen “fuel” and produce energy and waste products, mostly  water vapor. As long as hydrogen keeps being added, the cell can run, just like a gasoline engine can keep running as long as more gasoline is added. A battery has a finite amount of energy unless it’s recharged with electricity.

For more about how to make hydrogen for fuel cells, see The hydrogen economy, hydrogen sources, and the science behind these.

For a description of different hydrogen fuel cells in development right now, see here.



One way to smooth bumps in electricity delivery is through flywheels, which store energy in the form of rotational kinetic energy. A spinning potter’s wheel stores the energy of a good kick to be used moments later to mold a clay pot, and flywheels operate on a similar principle. In automobile engines, flywheels ease the transition between bumpy firing pistons and the drive shaft.

Flywheels can store energy for limited periods of time, from seconds to a few minutes.



Pumped storage (of water) is the only widely-used method for storing huge amounts of energy for long periods of time. The United States has a capacity of more than 20,000 megawatts of pumped storage, according to the National Hydropower Association.

During times of excess electricity production, that excess energy is used to pump water to a higher altitude, increasing its gravitational potential energy. When extra energy is needed, the water is allowed to flow back down by way of turbines, turning that potential energy back into electricity.

For a figure of pumped storage see the National Hydropower Association



Other technologies are constantly being investigated for energy storage. Compressed air storage is when air is forced into spaces like mines or caves and held at high pressure, using up energy in the process. When the compressed air is let out again, it can turn turbines to generate electricity.

Thermal energy storage exploits the difference in temperature between a system and the environment. In the late 1800s, Americans used thermal energy storage by cutting blocks of lake ice during the winter and storing them underground packed in insulating wood shavings. When the summer rolled around, they retrieved that stored ice to make food cold, exploiting the difference in temperature to force thermal energy out of the food.

Thermal energy storage can also happen in the other direction. Electricity or other forms of energy can be used to heat various materials, which are stored in insulated containers. Later, when the energy is needed, the hot materials can heat water into steam, and that steam can push turbines, which in turn produce electricity.

Thermal energy storage can also be used through ocean energy.

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Forms of Energy: Motion, Heat, Light, Sound

What forms of energy is Raul using to move his LEGO car?

When he was a teenager in Romania, Raul Oaida became obsessed with building things: a jet-engine bike, a tiny spaceship, a LEGO car that runs on air. Why? Well, why not?

You can see more cool stories about energy at The Adaptors website.

Like video and audio? Check out The Adaptors Podcast.


Energy comes in two basic forms: potential and kinetic

Potential Energy is any type of stored energy. It can be chemical, nuclear, gravitational, or mechanical.

Kinetic Energy is found in movement. An airplane flying or a meteor plummeting each have kinetic energy. Even the tiniest things have kinetic energy, like atoms vibrating when they are hot or when they transmit sound waves. Electricity is the kinetic energy of flowing electrons between atoms.

energy_forms_pie-chartEnergy can shift between forms, but it is never destroyed or created.

A car transforms the potential energy trapped in gasoline into various types of energy that help the wheels turn and get the car to move. Most of the energy is converted to thermal energy, which is an unorganized form of energy that is difficult to convert into a useful form.

Power plants transform one form of energy into a very useful form, electricity. Coal and natural gas plants use the chemical potential energy trapped in fossil fuels. Nuclear power plants change the nuclear potential energy of uranium or plutonium into electricity too. Wind turbines change the kinetic energy of air molecules in wind into electricity. Hydroelectric power plants take advantage of the gravitational potential energy of water as it falls from the top of a dam to the bottom.

These transformations are hardly perfect. An efficient fossil fuel power plant loses more than half of the energy it creates to forms other than electricity, such as heat, light, and sound.

Forms of Potential Energy


Systems can increase gravitational energy as mass moves away from the center of Earth or other objects that are large enough to generate significant gravity (our sun, the planets and stars).

For example, the farther you lift an anvil away from the ground, the more potential energy it has. Lifting the anvil is called work, which is an interaction in which energy is transferred from one system (the person) to another (the anvil). The person has to do more work in order to carry the anvil higher, and the higher the anvil is carried, the more gravitational potential energy is stored in the anvil. If the anvil is dropped, that potential energy transforms to kinetic energy as the anvil moves faster and faster toward Earth.


Chemical energy is stored in the bonds between the atoms in compounds. This stored energy is transformed when bonds are broken or formed through chemical reactions. Like letters of the alphabet that can be rearranged to form new words with very different meanings, atoms move around during chemical reactions, and they form new compounds with vastly different personalities.

When we burn sugar (a compound made of the elements hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon) in our bodies, the elements are reorganized into water and carbon dioxide. These reactions both absorb and release energy, but the overall result is that we get energy from the sugar, and our bodies use that energy to do work.

Chemical reactions that produce net energy are exothermic. When wood is burned, the chemical reactions taking place are exothermic. Electromagnetic and thermal energy are released. Only some chemical reactions release energy. Endothermic reactions need energy to start and to continue, such as by adding heat or light.


Today’s nuclear power plants are fueled by fission. Uranium or plutonium atoms are broken apart, freeing lots of energy. Hydrogen atoms in the sun experience nuclear fusion, combining to form helium and subsequently releasing large amounts of energy in the form of electromagnetic radiation and thermal energy.

Nuclear energy is the stored potential of the nucleus of an atom. Most atoms are stable on Earth; they keep their identities as particular elements, like hydrogen, helium, iron, and carbon, as identified in the Periodic Table of Elements. The number of protons in the nucleus tells you which element it is. Nuclear reactions change the fundamental identity of elements by splitting up an atom’s nucleus or fusing together more than one nucleus. These changes are called fission and fusion, respectively.


Elastic energy can be stored mechanically in a compressed gas or liquid, a coiled spring, or a stretched elastic band. On an atomic scale, the stored energy is a temporary strain placed on the bonds between atoms, meaning there’s no permanent change to the material. These bonds absorb energy as they are stressed, and release that energy as they relax.

Forms of Kinetic Energy


A moving object has kinetic energy. A basketball passed between players shows translational energy. That kinetic energy is proportional to the ball’s mass and the square of its velocity. To throw the same ball twice as fast, a player does more work and transfers four times the energy.

rotationalIf a player shoots a basketball with backspin or topspin, the basketball will also have rotational energy as it spins. Rotational energy is proportional to how many times it spins per second, as well as the ball’s mass, and the size and shape of the ball.

In shooting a basketball, players often try to add rotational energy as backspin, because it results in the greatest slowdown in speed when the basketball hits the rim or the backboard, increasing the chance that the ball stays near the basket. The opposite direction of spin, a topspin, can be used in games like tennis, because it will help speed up a ball after impact and lowers the angle it travels after the bounce.


Thermal energy is directly related to temperature. We can’t see individual atoms vibrating, but we can feel their kinetic energies as temperature. When there’s a difference between the temperature of the environment and a system within it, thermal energy is transferred between them as heat.

tea kettleA hot cup of tea loses some of its thermal energy as heat flows from the tea to the air in the room. Over time, the tea cools to the same temperature as the room air. At the same time, the thermal energy in the room air increases due to heat transfer from the tea. However, the thermal capacitance of the room air is much larger than the tea, so the temperature of the air in the room increases by very little – so little that a person in the room wouldn’t notice it.

Heat  flows spontaneously from high temperature objects to nearby low temperature objects, until all objects reach the same temperature, called thermal equilibrium. Some materials are easier to heat up or cool down than others. The thermal capacitance, or heat capacity, of a material tells us how much energy it takes to raise that material one degree in temperature. A pound of water has greater thermal capacitance than the same amount of stainless steel, for example. In moments, an empty one pound pot on the stove heats to 212 degrees Fahrenheit (the boiling temperature of water). If you pour a pound of water into the pot, it will take much longer than the empty pot to reach the same temperature, because water needs more energy to get as hot as steel.


Sound waves are made when stuff vibrates – like strings on an instrument or gas molecules in the air. Sound waves travel when the vibrating stuff causes stuff surrounding it to also vibrate. This happens in liquid, solid, or gaseous states. Sound cannot travel in a vacuum because a vacuum has no atoms to transmit the vibration.

Solids, liquids, and gases transmit sounds as waves, but the atoms that pass along the sound don’t travel the way photons do. The sound wave travels between atoms, like people passing along a “wave” in a sports stadium. Sounds have different frequencies and wavelengths (related to pitch) and different magnitudes (related to how loud).

Even though radio waves can transmit information about sound, they are a completely different kind of energy, called electromagnetic energy.


PlantElectromagnetic energy is the same as radiation or light. This type of energy can take the form of visible light, like the light from a candle or a light bulb, or invisible waves, like radio waves, microwaves, x-rays and gamma rays. Radiation — whether it’s coming from a candle or an x-ray tube — can travel in a vacuum. Sometimes physicists describe electromagnetic radiation as being composed of particles – tiny packets of energy called photons. Each photon has a characteristic frequency, wavelength, and energy, but all photons travel at the same speed, the speed of light, or nearly 1 billion feet per second.

Electromagnetic energy can be converted to the chemical energy stored in plants through photosynthesis, the process by which plants and algae use the sun’s radiation to turn carbon dioxide gas into sugar and carbohydrates.


Electric energy is to the kinetic energy of moving electrons, the negatively-charged particles in atoms. For more information about electricity, see Basics of Electricity.


-Anrica Deb


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Physics and How Machines Work

Machines are so complicated these days it’s difficult to quickly explain how they work. Nonetheless, today’s machines were built using the basic principles of physics that we began harnessing hundreds of years ago.


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Basics of Electricity and Circuits: How Energy Moves Through the Home


The first major use of electricity began in 1879, when Thomas Edison began installing incandescent lighting in notable locations like Wall Street in New York City. Edison wasn’t alone in his pursuit of electricity development, but he was the first to install integrated systems in conspicuous places.

At that time, Americans used various other light sources, like oil lamps, candles, and fires. A candle gives off only around a single watt’s worth of light. Calcium (or lime) lights could provide a lot of light, but it was a harsh light and reserved for conditions like the theater, hence the term in the limelight.

Most lighting was very poor – and often dangerous – in comparison to fluorescent bulbs, and electricity became popular quite quickly. By the turn of the century, other electric devices began to become available, and by the 1920s, Americans could purchase electric refrigerators, dishwashers, and washing machines.

The first electrical systems depended on extremely local power plants, within a few blocks, or even within the building. As time passed, electricity development became a regional responsibility, and today, the United States is split into many different systems of electricity distribution, including both regulated municipalities and for-profit utilities.



Electricity isn’t merely the existence of electrons but the flow, and it is their flow that provides power. It’s a little bit like gravity and the flow of water downhill. Water will move spontaneously downhill because of gravity. Electrons (like other charged particles) move spontaneously when they are in electric fields. An electric field is generated when there’s a difference in electric potential – called a voltage – just like a hill exists when there’s a difference in altitude.

Electricity is the flow of electrons, which themselves are small charged particles associated with atoms. Under neutral conditions, electrons stay with the atom or group of atoms that make up a compound. However, one electron is indistinguishable from another and can move from one atom to an adjacent one if the atoms make up a conducting material, like various metals.

Voltage can be thought of as the height of the hill. The bigger the voltage, the more electrons want to move, and the more power can be delivered.

Cataract Falls, Mount Tamalpais, California

Electrons moving can be diverted to do work, sort of in the same way that water traveling downhill can be diverted to run a mill or turbine.

The water’s kinetic energy is lost as it is used up in the turbine. Likewise, the electrons’ kinetic energy is lost when they are put to work in a device. The electrons don’t get destroyed in the process of losing energy, just as the water wouldn’t be destroyed.



When you plug in something like a light, electrons flow from the plug, through the light, and back out through the plug. However, it’s not that simple, since we use what’s called alternating current, or AC, which means that the electrons flow one direction and then reverse direction. Alternating current makes it easy to change from a high voltage to a lower voltage. This change is made through a transformer.



Today, inside the home, electricity powers computers, televisions, telephones, lights, refrigerators, heaters, air conditioning, healthcare-related devices, video games, rechargeable toys, stereos, alarm systems, garage doors, ovens, stovetops, dishwashers, clothes washers, routers, can openers, DVD players, DVRs, and countless rechargeable devices like phones and electronic tablets.

Computers, televisions, and handheld electronic devices have become increasingly popular, while refrigeration, heating, and cooling have become more efficient. These recent trends in home electricity use have shifted the greater part of home energy needs from climate control to electronics.



Today, most households have more than two televisions, with 88 percent of homes have two or more televisions in 2009. The average household had 2.5 televisions. In the same year, 79 percent had DVD players, 43 percent had DVRs, and 86 percent of households had one or more computers. Nielson reported in May, 2011 that for the first time in 20 years, television ownership is slightly down, perhaps in part because computers may be replacing the use of televisions, DVDs, VCRs, and video games.


More about home energy in the energy efficiency section.

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