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Fuel Cell Basics

August 14, 2013 - 2:09pm

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Photo of two hydrogen fuel cells.Fuel cells are an emerging technology that can provide heat and electricity for buildings and electrical power for vehicles and electronic devices.

How Fuel Cells Work

Fuel cells work like batteries, but they do not run down or need recharging. They produce electricity and heat as long as fuel is supplied. A fuel cell consists of two electrodes—a negative electrode (or anode) and a positive electrode (or cathode)—sandwiched around an electrolyte. A fuel, such as hydrogen, is fed to the anode, and air is fed to the cathode. Activated by a catalyst, hydrogen atoms separate into protons and electrons, which take different paths to the cathode. The electrons go through an external circuit, creating a flow of electricity. The protons migrate through the electrolyte to the cathode, where they reunite with oxygen and the electrons to produce water and heat.

Learn more about fuel cell operation by viewing the Fuel Cell Technologies Office's fuel cell animation.

Types of Fuel Cells

Although the basic operations of all fuel cells are the same, numerous varieties have been developed to take advantage of different electrolytes and serve different application needs.

Polymer Electrolyte Membrane Fuel Cells

Polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cells, also called proton exchange membrane fuel cells, use a polymer membrane as the electrolyte. These cells operate at relatively low temperatures and can quickly vary their output to meet shifting power demands. PEM fuel cells are the best candidates for powering automobiles. They can also be used for stationary power production.

Direct-Methanol Fuel Cells

The direct-methanol fuel cell (DMFC) is similar to the PEM cell in that it uses a polymer membrane as an electrolyte. However, DMFCs use methanol directly on the anode, which eliminates the need for a fuel reformer. DMFCs are of interest for powering portable electronic devices, such as laptop computers and battery rechargers.

Alkaline Fuel Cells

Alkaline fuel cells use an alkaline electrolyte such as potassium hydroxide or an alkaline membrane. Originally used by NASA on space missions, alkaline fuel cells are now finding new applications, such as in portable power.

Phosphoric Acid Fuel Cells

Phosphoric acid fuel cells use a phosphoric acid electrolyte held inside a porous matrix, and operate at about 200°C. They are typically used in modules of 400 kW or greater and are being used for stationary power production in hotels, hospitals, grocery stores, and office buildings, where waste heat can also be used. Phosphoric acid can also be immobilized in polymer membranes, and fuel cells using these membranes are of interest for a variety of stationary power applications.

Molten Carbonate Fuel Cells

Molten carbonate fuel cells use a molten carbonate salt immobilized in a porous matrix as their electrolyte. They are already being used in a variety of medium-to-large-scale stationary applications, where their high efficiency produces net energy savings. Their high-temperature operation (approximately 600°C) enables them to internally reform fuels such as natural gas and biogas.

Solid Oxide Fuel Cells

Solid oxide fuel cells use a thin layer of ceramic as a solid electrolyte. They are being developed for use in a variety of stationary power applications, as well as in auxiliary power devices for heavy-duty trucks. Operating at 700 – 1000°C with zirconia-based electrolytes, and as low as 500°C with ceria-based electrolytes, these fuel cells can internally reform natural gas and biogas, and can be combined with a gas turbine to produce electrical efficiencies as high as 75%.

Combined Heat and Power

In addition to electricity, fuel cells produce heat. This heat can be used to fulfill heating needs, including hot water and space heating. Combined heat and power fuel cells are of interest for powering houses and buildings, where total efficiency as high as 90% is achievable. This high efficiency operation saves money, saves energy, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

Regenerative or Reversible Fuel Cells

This special class of fuel cells produces electricity from hydrogen and oxygen, but can be reversed and powered with electricity to produce hydrogen and oxygen. This emerging technology could provide storage of excess energy produced by intermittent renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power stations, releasing this energy during times of low power production.

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