Fuel Cells Explained

What is a Fuel Cell and How Does It Work

Fuel cells are electrochemical devices that convert a fuel's chemical energy directly to electrical energy with high efficiency. With no internal moving parts, fuel cells operate similar to batteries. An important difference is that batteries store energy, while fuel cells can produce electricity continuously as long as fuel and air are supplied. Fuel cells electrochemically combine a fuel (typically hydrogen) and an oxidant without burning, thereby dispensing with the inefficiencies and pollution of traditional energy conversion systems.

Fuel cells forego the traditional fuel-to-electricity production route common in modern power production, which consists of heat extraction from fuel, conversion of heat to mechanical energy and, finally, transformation of mechanical energy into electrical energy. In a sense, our bodies operate like fuel cells because we oxidize hydrocarbon compounds in our food and release chemical energy without combustion.

Fuel cells function on the principal of electrolytic charge exchange between a positively charged anode plate and a negatively charged cathode plate. When hydrogen is used as the basic fuel, "reverse hydrolysis" occurs, yielding only water and heat as byproducts while converting chemical energy into electricity, as shown in Figure 1. Pollutant emissions are practically zero.

Fuel Cell Diagram

Figure 1. Conceptual Operation of a Fuel Cell.

 

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Fuel Cells Explained

 


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