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overview | PROCEDURES

  Fuel Cells

Step 1 - State the Problem
Step 2 - Research, and Hypothesize or Predict
Step 3 - Plan Experiment and Gather Data
Step 4 - Analyze the Data and Make a Conclusion
Step 5 - Take Action
Step 6 - Assessment

Step 1 - State the ProblemMore information about this step

Identify the problem in your community

Energy log
Have your students keep an energy log for one day, noting all the different sources of energy they use from sun-up to sundown. The next day, discuss their findings. What was the most common form of energy used?

Comparing energy types
Have student groups choose different kinds of energy to study. Make sure that fuel cells and combustion engines are among the energy sources studied. Groups should note the emission levels, advantages, and disadvantages of their energy source. They should consider: cost, impact on environment, and availability of source. When complete, list the pros and cons of each source on one master chart that will remain posted in the class for the duration of the project.
Use the Web sites provided in this step, and the WHAT'S UP IN THE ENVIRONMENT video to complete the research.

If you don't have access to more than one computer, do one of the following: print out the materials from the Web sites listed below and have students work from that; set up different learner stations, one with books, and one with a computer; connect your computer to a large screen that can be seen by all students in the class; or have students use the computers at their local library or community technology center to conduct their research.

Resources for step 1

Materials needed

  • Chart paper, graph paper, or Excel for creating the master chart
  • Internet access (optional)
  • WHAT'S UP IN THE ENVIRONMENT video (optional)

Bookmark these Web sites for student research

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Step 2 - Research, and Hypothesize or PredictMore information about this step

Two energy sources have been around for a long time: combustion engines and fuel cells. While combustion engines were and are used widely, the more environmentally friendly fuel cells have been slower to catch on. Have students find out how fuel cells work by researching how they're used, how much energy they can produce, and the expense of the energy produced. Once students find the answers to these questions, have them create, present, and publish a diagram that shows how a fuel cell works.

Optional activity
If at all possible, take a field trip to a landfill or a wastewater treatment plant where waste methane is used to power fuel cells. This will show the different ways fuel cells are worth being used. At least 140 locations across the U.S. are currently operating fuel cells. Use the EPA - Office of Waste Management link below to find an appropriate site in your area.

Once your students have learned how fuel cells work, have them use the information they gathered to create a hypothesis for the following: How are fuel cells different from combustion engines? How have these differences effected fuel cell usage?

Resources for step 2

Bookmark these Web sites for student research

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Step 3 - Plan Experiment and Gather DataMore information about this step

Now have students design an experiment to test the differences or similarities of fuel cell and combustion engines. Visit the Web sites listed below, and talk to the Department of Energy and other experts to get assistance in designing your experiment.

Suggested experiment
One possible experiment involves building two model cars -- one powered by a combustion engine and the other powered by a fuel cell. Have students determine how much pollution each car emitted, and how powerful each engine was. This experiment should be repeated many times, changing one variable each time.

Recording data
Talk to students about what kind of data they'll need to record, how often they'll need to record it (we recommend daily), and how they should organize it. Assign different groups of students to record information for each power source.

Note: To obtain a fuel cell kit, try contacting your local university to see if you can borrow one, or purchase a kit for around $100 from the site listed below. If neither of these options is feasible, then modify your experiment by examining the chemistry of fuel cells. See the National Energy Technology Lab unit listed in the teacher resources section below for complete instructions. Combustion engines can be taken out of most household appliances.
Students should keep a log and note all pertinent information about the experiment.

Resources for step 3

Materials needed

  • Fuel cell kit
  • Small combustion engine
  • Log books

Teacher tool Web sites

Bookmark these Web sites for student research

  • Ask a Department of Energy (DOE) Expert
    This Web site allows you to ask a question of a DOE expert. Students can use this resource to help them design their experiments.

  • Carolina Math and Science: Ask Our Professor
    This site allows you to email a question to a math or science expert and promises to email you back within two days. Students can use this resource to help them design their experiments.

  • Ballard Products: Fuel Cell Animation
    Watch this animation showing how a PEM fuel cell engine works.

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Step 4 - Analyze the Data and Make a Conclusion  More information about this step

Have students compare the data they collected by observing the combustion engine and the fuel cell in action. Then have them answer the following:

  • What are the pros and cons of each energy source as it exists today?

  • Are there any improvements that could make fuel cells more practical in the future?

  • Based on your experiment and your research, in what ways could fuel cells help supply energy to your community today?
Have students use images, diagrams, and written descriptions to create a report, PowerPoint presentation, or Web page.

Resources for step 4

Materials needed

  • For report: PowerPoint or word processing software, or use Web building resources listed in teacher tools.

Teacher tool Web sites

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Step 5 - Take Action

Start a campaign to bring clean fuel cell energy to your city or town! For examples and ideas about how to do this, consult the National Wildlife Federation site ( Or use some of the following ideas to get started:

  • Put together a persuasive pamphlet about the importance of fuel cell technology and send it to your local politicians.
  • Make a presentation to your town council, explaining your project and what you learned about fuel cells. Give them your suggestion for the best way to incorporate fuel cells into the town energy supply.
  • Hold fundraisers at your school to raise money to help buy fuel cells or to help you travel to other schools and teach other kids about fuel cells.
  • Conduct a media blitz to educate the community about fuel cell technology.

Resources for step 5

Bookmark these Web sites for student research

  • National Wildlife Federation Web site
    This site gives great advice on how to write to local media, write press releases, plan campaigns, and more. You may want to have your students consult this site for advice on how to promote their fuel cell campaigns.

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Step 6 - Assessment

Throughout the project, encourage students to take pictures, write articles, and interview environmentalists. Once the entire project is complete, have students create an illustrated article, scrapbook, Web site, or video that includes the following elements:

  • A summary of project steps and what was learned in each step from beginning to end. This part should include all the documents created in the previous steps, as well as any photos, video or audio clips, emails or letters from people in the field, etc.

  • A short analysis of what did or didn't work in this project, and why.

  • A description of what you might change or improve upon next time.

  • A reflection piece that notes what it felt like to undertake this project.

If you choose to do a project that can be posted on the Web, send it to us and we'll post it on the WHAT'S UP IN THE ENVIRONMENT Web site! Make sure to consult our submission guidelines for instructions on how to get your project posted on our site.

If possible, check back next year with your town to see if there are any plans to adopt fuel cells as a clean energy source in the area. Send us your results with a Web site update.

Resources for step 6

Teacher tool Web sites

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