This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
A fuel cell uses the chemical energy of hydrogen to cleanly and efficiently produce electricity with water and heat as byproducts. 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 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 byproducts.
How Does a Fuel Cell Work?
A fuel cell is a device that uses a 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). While there are different fuel cell types, all fuel cells work similarly:
A fuel (such as hydrogen) 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 and phosphoric acid fuel cells, protons move through the electrolyte to the cathode to combine with oxygen and electrons, producing water and heat.
temperature. such as fuel cell type. Therefore. The amount of power produced by a fuel cell depends upon several factors. most fuel cell systems consist of four basic components: • • • • Fuel cell stack Fuel processor Current inverters and conditioners Heat recovery system Most fuel cell systems also include other components and subsystems to control fuel cell humidity. However. and the pressure at which the gases are supplied to the cell. individual fuel cells are typically combined in series into a fuel cell stack. • The electrons from the anode cannot pass through the electrolyte to the positively charged cathode. negative ions travel through the electrolyte to the anode where they combine with hydrogen to generate water and electrons. and wastewater. A typical fuel cell stack may consist of hundreds of fuel cells. Fuel Cell Systems The design of fuel cell systems is complex and can vary significantly depending upon fuel cell type and application. cell size. they must travel around it via an electrical circuit to reach the other side of the cell. the temperature at which it operates. It generates electricity in the form of direct current (DC) from chemical reactions that take place in the fuel cell. This movement of electrons is an electrical current. Learn more about the parts of a fuel cell. molten carbonate. and solid oxide fuel cells. Fuel Cell Stack The fuel cell stack is the heart of a fuel cell power system.• For alkaline. gas pressure. . A single fuel cell produces enough electricity for only the smallest applications.
whether it is a simple electrical motor or a complex utility power grid. diesel. before it is sent to the fuel cell stack. If hydrogen is fed to the system. Current Inverters and Conditioners Current inverters and conditioners adapt the electrical current from the fuel cell to suit the electrical needs of the application. If the fuel cell is used to power equipment using AC. such as carbon oxides or sulfur. or gasified coal. electricity flows in only one direction. conventional fuel. a processor may not be required. This binding process is also called "poisoning" because it reduces the efficiency and life expectancy of the fuel cell. This type is called internal reforming. This process prevents impurities in the gas from binding with the fuel cell catalysts. which flows in both directions on alternating cycles. In a direct current circuit. The electricity in your home and workplace is in the form of alternating current (AC). gasoline. a reformer is typically used to convert hydrocarbons into a gas mixture of hydrogen and carbon compounds called "reformate. If the system is powered by a hydrogen-rich.Fuel Processor The fuel processor converts fuel into a form useable by the fuel cell. Fuel cells produce electricity in the form of direct current (DC)." In many cases. Some fuel cells. Fuel cells that use internal reforming still need traps to remove impurities from the unreformed fuel before it reaches the fuel cell. such as those used in gasoline-powered vehicles. Both internal and external reforming release carbon dioxide. operate at temperatures high enough that the fuel can be reformed in the fuel cell itself. . the reformate is then sent to another reactor to remove impurities. but less than the amount emitted by internal-combustion engines. such as methanol. such as molten carbonate and solid oxide fuel cells. or it may be needed only to filter impurities out of the hydrogen gas. the direct current will have to be converted to alternating current.
• • • Anode. because significant amounts of heat are generated by some fuel cell systems—especially those that operate at high temperatures. catalyst. has several jobs. It conducts the electrons back from the external circuit to the catalyst. also contains channels that distribute the oxygen to the surface of the catalyst. Power conditioning includes controlling current flow (amperes). PEM fuel cells are made from several layers of different materials. Parts of a Fuel Cell Polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cells are the current focus of research for fuel cell vehicle applications. and other characteristics of the electrical current to meet the needs of the application. Polymer electrolyte membrane. frequency. the negative side of the fuel cell.Both AC and DC power must be conditioned. Heat Recovery System Fuel cell systems are not primarily used to generate heat. The three key layers in a PEM fuel cell include: • • • Membrane electrode assembly Catalyst Hardware Other layers of materials are designed to help draw fuel and air into the cell and to conduct electrical current through the cell. where they can recombine with the hydrogen ions and oxygen to form water. The polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM)—a specially treated material that looks something like ordinary kitchen plastic wrap— conducts only positively charged ions and blocks the electrons. such as solid oxide and molten carbonate systems—this excess energy can be used to produce steam or hot water or to be converted to electricity via a gas turbine or other technology. Conversion and conditioning reduce system efficiency only slightly. The cathode. the positive side of the fuel cell. and polymer electrolyte membrane together form the membrane electrode assembly (MEA) of a PEM fuel cell. it must permit only the necessary ions to pass between the . Cathode. around 2%–6%. However. The anode. voltage. It conducts the electrons that are freed from the hydrogen molecules so they can be used in an external circuit. The PEM is the key to the fuel cell technology. Channels etched into the anode disperse the hydrogen gas equally over the surface of the catalyst. Membrane Electrode Assembly The electrodes (anode and cathode). as shown in the diagram. These methods increase the overall energy efficiency of the systems.
This membrane/electrode assembly. and current collectors are designed to maximize the current from a membrane/electrode assembly.7 volts.2 mm). It is usually made of platinum powder very thinly coated onto carbon paper or cloth. The thickness of the catalyst layers depends upon how much platinum (Pt) is used in each electrode. the two half-reactions would occur very slowly at the low operating temperature of the PEM fuel cell. The thickness of the membrane in a membrane electrode assembly can vary with the type of membrane. can generate more than half an ampere of current for every square centimeter of assembly area at a voltage of 0. The catalyst is rough and porous so the maximum surface area of the platinum can be exposed to the hydrogen or oxygen. Catalyst All electrochemical reactions in a fuel cell consist of two separate reactions: an oxidation half-reaction at the anode and a reduction half-reaction at the cathode. DOE's goal is to reduce the use of platinum in fuel cell cathodes by at least a factor of 20 or eliminate it altogether to decrease the cost of fuel cells to consumers. flow fields. Other substances passing through the electrolyte would disrupt the chemical reaction. the other next to the cathode—are usually made of a porous carbon paper or carbon cloth. about as thick as 4 to 12 sheets of paper. but they are very expensive.anode and cathode. Hardware The backing layers. with a total thickness of about 200 μm (or 0. Platinum-group metals are critical to catalyzing reactions in the fuel cell. The backing layers—one next to the anode. but only when encased in wellengineered components—backing layers. Normally. Each of the electrodes is coated on one side with a catalyst layer that speeds up the reaction of oxygen and hydrogen.15 milligrams (mg) Pt/cm2. The gas spreads out as it diffuses so that when . The backing layers have to be made of a material (like carbon) that can conduct the electrons that leave the anode and enter the cathode. The porous nature of the backing material ensures effective diffusion (flow of gas molecules from a region of high concentration to a region of low concentration) of each reactant gas to the catalyst on the membrane/electrode assembly. and current collectors. The platinum-coated side of the catalyst faces the PEM. the thickness of the catalyst layer is close to 10 micrometers (μm)—less than half the thickness of a sheet of paper. For catalyst layers containing about 0. flow fields.
the PEM fuel cell is complete. too little or too much water can cause the cell to stop operating. Pressed against the outer surface of each backing layer is a piece of hardware called a bipolar plate that typically serves as both flow field and current collector. gas-impermeable. through the backing layer. The correct backing material allows the right amount of water vapor to reach the membrane/electrode assembly and keep the membrane humidified. Water can build up in the flow channels of the plates or can clog the pores in the carbon cloth (or carbon paper). which would prevent the rapid gas diffusion necessary for a good rate of reaction at the electrodes. along the length of the stack. and (3) re-enter the cell at the cathode plate. The plates are made of a lightweight.it penetrates the backing. preventing reactive gases from reaching the electrodes. The channels carry the reactant gas from the place where it enters the fuel cell to the place where it exits. is required for electric current to flow. The backing layers also help in managing water in the fuel cell. it will be in contact with the entire surface area of the catalyzed membrane. Each plate also acts as a current collector. electron-conducting material—graphite or metals are commonly used even though composite plates are now being developed. strong. . such as an electric motor. The pattern of the flow field in the plate (as well as the width and depth of the channels) has a large impact on how evenly the reactant gases are spread across the active area of the membrane/electrode assembly. only a load-containing external circuit. Electrons produced by the oxidation of hydrogen must (1) be conducted through the anode. and through the plate before they can exit the cell. these two plates are the last of the components making up the cell. and preferably most. The first task served by each plate is to provide a gas "flow field. The backing layers are often coated with Teflon™ to ensure that at least some. (2) travel through an external circuit. Flow field design also affects water supply to the membrane and water removal from the cathode. In a single fuel cell. of the pores in the carbon cloth (or carbon paper) do not become clogged with water." Channels are etched into the side of the plate next to the backing layer. With the addition of the flow fields and current collectors.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue reading from where you left off, or restart the preview.