Sunday, November 23, 2008

How Fuel Cells Work

The core of the Ballard® fuel cell consists of a membrane electrode assembly, which is placed between two flow-field plates.

The MEA consists of two electrodes, the anode and the cathode, which are each coated on one side with a thin catalyst layer and separated by a proton exchange membrane (PEM). The flow-field plates direct hydrogen to the anode and oxygen (from air) to the cathode.

When hydrogen reaches the catalyst layer, it separates into protons (hydrogen ions) and electrons.

The free electrons, produced at the anode, are conducted in the form of a usable electric current through the external circuit. At the cathode, oxygen from the air, electrons from the external circuit and protons combine to form water and heat.

Parts of a Ballard® fuel cell

Diagram of Fuel Cells

Expanded Single Fuel Cell
A single fuel cell consists of the membrane electrode assembly and two flow-field plates.

Hydrogen flows through channels in flow field plates to the anode where the platinum catalyst promotes its separation into protons and electrons. Hydrogen can be supplied to a fuel cell directly or may be obtained from natural gas, methanol or petroleum using a fuel processor, which converts the hydrocarbons into hydrogen and carbon dioxide through a catalytic chemical reaction.

Membrane Electrode Assembly
Each membrane electrode assembly consists of two electrodes (the anode and the cathode) with a very thin layer of catalyst, bonded to either side of a proton exchange membrane.

Air flows through the channels in flow field plates to the cathode. The hydrogen protons that migrate through the proton exchange membrane combine with oxygen in air and electrons returning from the external circuit to form pure water and heat. The air stream also removes the water created as a by-product of the electrochemical process.

Flow Field Plates
Gases (hydrogen and air) are supplied to the electrodes of the membrane electrode assembly through channels formed in flow field plates.

Fuel Cell Stack
To obtain the desired amount of electrical power, individual fuel cells are combined to form a fuel cell stack. Increasing the number of cells in a stack increases the voltage, while increasing the surface area of the cells increases the current.

Learn more

What is a Fuel Cell?

A fuel cell is an electrochemical energy conversion device that converts hydrogen and oxygen into electricity and heat. It is very much like a battery that can be recharged while you are drawing power from it. Instead of recharging using electricity, however, a fuel cell uses hydrogen and oxygen.

Photo courtesy Ballard Power Systems
A fuel-cell stack that could power an automobile
The fuel cell will compete with many other types of energy conversion devices, including the gas turbine in your city's power plant, the gasoline engine in your car and the battery in your laptop. Combustion engines like the turbine and the gasoline engine burn fuels and use the pressure created by the expansion of the gases to do mechanical work. Batteries store electrical energy by converting it into chemical energy, which can be converted back into electrical energy when needed.

A fuel cell provides a DC (direct current) voltage that can be used to power motors, lights or any number of electrical appliances. There are several different types of fuel cells, each using a different chemistry. Fuel cells are usually classified by the type of electrolyte they use. Some types of fuel cells show promise for use in power generation plants. Others may be useful for small portable applications or for powering cars.

The proton exchange membrane fuel cell (PEMFC) is one of the most promising technologies. This is the type of fuel cell that will end up powering cars, buses and maybe even your house.