A fuel cell uses the chemical energy of hydrogen or another fuel to cleanly and efficiently produce electricity with water and heat as the only products. Fuel cells are unique in terms of the variety of their potential applications; they can provide power for systems as large as a utility power station and as small as a laptop computer.
Why Study Fuel Cells
Fuel cells can be used in a wide range of applications, including transportation, material handling, stationary, portable, and emergency backup power applications. Fuel cells have several benefits over conventional combustion-based technologies currently used in many power plants and passenger vehicles. They emit no emissions at the point of operation, including greenhouse gases and air pollutants that create smog and cause health problems. On a life-cycle basis, if pure hydrogen is used as a fuel, fuel cells emit only heat and water as products. Also, fuel cells are very quiet during operation as they have fewer moving parts.
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 molecules separate into protons and electrons, which take different paths throughout the fuel cell 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 unite with oxygen and the electrons to produce water and heat. Learn more about:
View the Fuel Cell Technologies Office's fuel cell animation to see how a fuel cell operates.
Research and Development Goals
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is working closely with its national laboratories, universities, and industry partners to overcome critical technical barriers to fuel cell commercialization. Cost, performance, and durability are still key challenges in the fuel cell industry. View related links that provide details about DOE-funded fuel cell activities.
- Cost—Platinum represents one of the largest cost components of a fuel cell, so much of the R&D focuses on approaches that will increase activity and utilization of current platinum group metal (PGM) and PGM-alloy catalysts, as well as non-PGM catalyst approaches for long-term applications.
- Performance—To improve fuel cell performance, R&D focuses on developing ion-exchange membrane electrolytes with enhanced efficiency and durability at reduced cost; improving membrane electrode assemblies (MEAs) through integration of state-of-the-art MEA components; developing transport models and in-situ and ex-situ experiments to provide data for model validation; identifying degradation mechanisms and developing approaches to mitigate their effects; and maintaining core activities on components, sub-systems, and systems specifically tailored for stationary and portable power applications.
- Durability—A key performance factor is durability, in terms of a fuel cell system lifetime that will meet application expectations. DOE durability targets for stationary and transportation fuel cells are 40,000 hours and 5,000 hours, respectively, under realistic operating conditions. In the most demanding applications, realistic operating conditions include impurities in the fuel and air, starting and stopping, freezing and thawing, and humidity and load cycles that result in stresses on the chemical and mechanical stability of the fuel cell system materials and components. R&D focuses on understanding the fuel cell degradation mechanisms and developing materials and strategies that will mitigate them.