A fuel cell uses the chemical energy of hydrogen to cleanly and efficiently produce electricity, with water and heat as by products. Fuel cells are unique in terms of the variety of their potential applications; they can provide energy for systems as large as a utility power station and as small as a laptop computer.
Fuel cells have several benefits over conventional combustion-based technologies currently used in many power plants and passenger vehicles. They produce much smaller quantities of greenhouse gases and none of the air pollutants that create smog and cause health problems. If pure hydrogen is used as a fuel, fuel cells emit only heat and water as a byproduct.
A fuel cell is a device that uses hydrogen (or hydrogen-rich fuel) and oxygen to create electricity by an electrochemical process. A single fuel cell consists of an electrolyte and two catalyst-coated electrodes (a porous anode and cathode). The operating principle of fuel cell is as follows.
- Hydrogen, or a hydrogen-rich fuel, is fed to the anode where a catalyst separates hydrogen's negatively charged electrons from positively charged ions (protons).
- At the cathode, oxygen combines with electrons and, in some cases, with species such as protons or water, resulting in water or hydroxide ions, respectively.
- For polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cell, protons move through the electrolyte to the cathode to combine with oxygen and electrons, producing water and heat.
- The electrons from the anode side of the cell cannot pass through the electrolyte to the positively charged cathode; they must travel around it via an electrical circuit to reach the other side of the cell.
- This movement of electrons is an electrical current.