After eight years and 600 million dollars, a fuel cell has been developed that can power an office building. Let's take a look at how fuel cells work, their advantages over other fuels, and what's coming next.
Fuel cells consist of specific materials sandwiched together in particular order. The outer-most layers are covered with a chemical catalyst, often platinum, chosen for one specific property. It rips the electrons off passing atoms. The inner layers of the cell consist of a proton exchange membrane. This also has a specific function. It allows only positively-charged ions to pass through.
Hydrogen atoms are pumped into the cell. The catalyst separates them from their electrons, leaving unaffiliated protons and electrons. The protons are positively charged, and since the membrane conducts them, they are whisked away to the other side of the cell.
This leaves the electrons all on their own. Since like charges repel, and since the electrons cannot pass through the membrane, it puts the electrons in an uncomfortable position. Fortunately, they are offered a way out. All they must do in return is stream through a wire connected to the object that must be powered. The electrons rush out through their escape tunnel, and form a direct current that powers anything from a weak light-bulb to an entire factory. After that, they are allowed to return to the other side of the cell, where they meet up with the protons that left them behind.
They also meet up with oxygen, which is being pumped into the other side of the cell. The oxygen combines with the hydrogen atoms to form water. Water and heat, and of course electricity, are the products of the fuel cell. Fuel cells also do not burn materials to create energy, and are therefore a very clean producer of electricity.
They do, however, burn money. Fuel cells are efficient and clean, but expensive. They're fragile, as well, and many of them are not suited to the extremes of temperature that they're put through. The current fuel cell seems to have the trifecta; efficiency, durability, and economy. One of its main components is sand, which is not hard to come by. A lot of businesses are getting behind this new cell, and with any luck, a breadbox full of sand will be powering homes by 2020.