Sunday, August 14, 2005


What is a fuel cell anyway?

Posted by ben @ 3:52 PM | Permanent Link

Just to be comprehensive, I'll start off with some basics, although I plan to go into some good detail in a lot of my blog posts. I'm not going to re-invent the internet here though. There are lots of very good resources where you can read up on how fuel cells work. One of the best is the fuel cell wiki. I've actually contributed to the solid oxide fuel cell section of the wiki. What I'll do here is just go over the basics very quickly.

A fuel cell is an energy conversion device, the internal combustion engine is also an energy conversion device. Basically, an energy conversion device takes a fuel, and fuel is just a way of storing energy, and converts the energy in the fuel into something that we can use. Hydrogen for example can be made by passing a current through water and splitting water into H2 and O2. The current can be generated from a wind turbine, a nuclear reactor, solar power or coal power. So H2 is a way of storing energy the same way oil stores the sun's and the earth's energy. The big difference between a fuel cell and an internal combustion engine is that a fuel cell has no moving parts, no explosions, just chemical reactions (actually electro-chemical reactions). Fuel cells require the fuel to be a gas though, although it's fairly easy to convert liquid fuel into a gas since fuel cells have lots of waste heat. One more thing, fuel cells generate direct-current electricity, internal combustion engines generate mechanical energy which can be converted into electrical energy. So, that's the basics of what a fuel cell is: fuel in, electricity out.

The figure at the top right is how a hydrogen fueled polymer electrolyte fuel cell (PEMFC) works. Every fuel cell has 3 main components: 1. Cathode 2. Anode 3. Electrolyte. The cathode and the anode are known as electrodes. In all fuel cells, the cathode breaks down oxygen (electrochemical reduction), the anode breaks down the fuel, such as H2 (electrochemical oxidation). Electrons are produced at the anode, travel around an external circuit to the cathode, the movement of electrons is electricity. There's one more piece in the puzzle, and that's an ion, which travels through the electrolyte. The type of ion and what electrode it is generated in depends on the type of fuel cell. These ions can be H+, OH-, O2-.

That's all I'm going to say about how fuel cells work here. Read more in the wiki.

I do want to mention though that there are a couple different types of fuel cells. The main difference between these fuel cells are the materials that they are made from and the temperature that they operate at. Both of these factors determine what type of fuel can be used. Fuel cells (like the PEMFC) operate at around 100C (low temperature) and because they are at low temperatures, they need a good catalyst, platinum and therefore high purity hydrogen since impurities can deactivate the platinum catalyst. High temperature fuel cells (like the SOFC) don't need platinum and they so they can use hydrocarbons as fuel, usually natural gas.

These are the most popular types of fuel cells, starting with low temperature and going up to high temperature operation. Except for the DMFC, They are all named by the material that their electrolyte is made from:
DMFC operates below 100C, PEMFC operates around 100C, AFC about 150-200C, PAFC about 300C, MCFC around 500-600C and SOFC around 800-1000C.

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