A fuel cell is a device that converts the chemical energy from a fuel into electricity through a chemical reaction with oxygen or another oxidizing agent. Hydrogen is the most common fuel, but hydrocarbons such as natural gas and alcohols like methanol are sometimes used. Fuel cells are different from batteries in that they require a constant source of fuel and oxygen/air to sustain the chemical reaction; however, fuel cells can produce electricity continually for as long as these inputs are supplied.
The first fuel cells were invented almost simultaneously in 1838 by two physicists working independently in two different countries, Welsh physicist William Grove and German physicist Christian Friedrich Schönbein. The first commercial use of fuel cells came more than a century later, in NASA space programs to generate power for probes, satellites and space capsules. Since then, fuel cells have been used in many other applications. Fuel cells are used for primary and backup power for commercial, industrial and residential buildings and in remote or inaccessible areas. They are also used to power fuel-cell vehicles, including forklifts, automobiles, buses, airplanes, boats, motorcycles and submarines.
A chemical element is a pure chemical substance consisting of one type of atom distinguished by its atomic number, which is the number of protons in its nucleus. Elements are divided into metals, metalloids, and non-metals. Familiar examples of elements include carbon, oxygen (non-metals), silicon, arsenic (metalloids), aluminium, iron, copper, gold, mercury, and lead (metals).
The lightest chemical elements, including hydrogen, helium (and smaller amounts of lithium, beryllium and boron), are thought to have been produced by various cosmic processes during the Big Bang and cosmic-ray spallation. Production of heavier elements, from carbon to the very heaviest elements, proceeded by stellar nucleosynthesis, and these were made available for later solar system and planetary formation by planetary nebulae and supernovae, which blast these elements into space. The high abundance of oxygen, silicon, and iron on Earth reflects their common production in such stars, after the lighter gaseous elements and their compounds have been subtracted. While most elements are generally viewed as stable, a small amount of natural transformation of one element to another also occurs at the present time through decay of radioactive elements as well as other natural nuclear processes.