A fuel cell uses the chemical energy of hydrogen or another fuel to cleanly and efficiently produce electricity. If hydrogen is the fuel, electricity, water, and heat are 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. Fuel cells can operate at higher efficiencies than combustion engines, and can convert the chemical energy in the fuel to electrical energy with efficiencies of up to 60%. Fuel cells have lower emissions than combustion engines. Hydrogen fuel cells emit only water, so there are no carbon dioxide emissions and no air pollutants that create smog and cause health problems at the point of operation. Also, fuel cells are 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. In a hydrogen fuel cell, a catalyst at the anode separates hydrogen molecules 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 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.
Download the Fuel Cells section of the Fuel Cell Technologies Office's Multi-Year Research, Development, and Demonstration Plan for full details about technical targets, or view individual target tables for:
- Fuel cell systems, stacks, and components for light-duty transportation applications
- Fuel cell transit buses
- Fuel cell backup power systems
- Fuel cell systems for stationary (combined heat and power) applications
- Fuel cell systems for portable power and auxiliary power applications.