Fuel cells can possibly power any thing from tiny microchips to car and power plants.
What is a fuel cell?
A fuel cell is a device that generates electricity by a chemical reaction. Every fuel cell has two electrodes, one positive and one negative, called, respectively, the anode and cathode. The reactions that produce electricity take place at the electrodes.
Every fuel cell also has an electrolyte, which carries electrically charged particles from one electrode to the other, and a catalyst, which speeds the reactions at the electrodes.
Hydrogen is the basic fuel, but fuel cells also require oxygen. One great appeal of fuel cells is that they generate electricity with very little pollution—much of the hydrogen and oxygen used in generating electricity ultimately combine to form a harmless byproduct, namely water.
One detail of terminology: a single fuel cell generates a tiny amount of direct current (DC) electricity. In practice, many fuel cells are usually assembled into a stack. Cell or stack, the principles are the same.
How do fuel cells work?
The purpose of a fuel cell is to produce an electrical current that can be directed outside the cell to do work, such as powering an electric motor or illuminating a light bulb or a city. Because of the way electricity behaves, this current returns to the fuel cell, completing an electrical circuit. (To learn more about electricity and electric power, visit “Throw The Switch” on the Smithsonian website Powering a Generation of Change.) The chemical reactions that produce this current are the key to how a fuel cell works.
There are several kinds of fuel cells, and each operates a bit differently. But in general terms, hydrogen atoms enter a fuel cell at the anode where a chemical reaction strips them of their electrons. The hydrogen atoms are now “ionized,” and carry a positive electrical charge. The negatively charged electrons provide the current through wires to do work. If alternating current (AC) is needed, the DC output of the fuel cell must be routed through a conversion device called an inverter.
Graphic by Marc Marshall, Schatz Energy Research Center
Oxygen enters the fuel cell at the cathode and, in some cell types (like the one illustrated above), it there combines with electrons returning from the electrical circuit and hydrogen ions that have traveled through the electrolyte from the anode. In other cell types the oxygen picks up electrons and then travels through the electrolyte to the anode, where it combines with hydrogen ions.
The electrolyte plays a key role. It must permit only the appropriate ions to pass between the anode and cathode. If free electrons or other substances could travel through the electrolyte, they would disrupt the chemical reaction.
Whether they combine at anode or cathode, together hydrogen and oxygen form water, which drains from the cell. As long as a fuel cell is supplied with hydrogen and oxygen, it will generate electricity.
Even better, since fuel cells create electricity chemically, rather than by combustion, they are not subject to the thermodynamic laws that limit a conventional power plant (see “Carnot Limit” in the glossary). Therefore, fuel cells are more efficient in extracting energy from a fuel. Waste heat from some cells can also be harnessed, boosting system efficiency still further.
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