How Hydrogen Fuel Cells Work

Fuel cells are basically a type of battery which, instead of being recharged with the electricity they output, are instead recharged with a fuel. In both a battery and a fuel cell, a chemical process produces electricity for use in a circuit by traveling through a cathode and anode.

In a hydrogen fuel cell, hydrogen gas (H2) is sent through an exchange and catalyst process to recombine with oxygen (O) to create water. This chemical combination gives off an electron, which can travel through a circuit to power something. Water (H2O) is the byproduct after the combination is made.

Hydrogen fuel cell technology is being experimented with in automotive as a future fuel and propulsion source. The hydrogen fuel cells are essentially used in lieu of batteries to power an electric car. Fuel cells have the advantage of being faster to refuel and capable of longer distances with fewer components (in terms of mass). Other possible fuel cells include methanol fuel cells as well as burgeoning technologies like zinc air cells.

Although mass production of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles has not happened yet, most major manufacturers will have one on the market by 2015.

How Fuel Cells Work

Most hydrogen fuel cells use a proton exchange membrane. In this system, layers of different materials are stacked and the hydrogen gas (H2) is sent through it, eventually exchanging a proton. Positively-charged H2 atoms are separated from negatives by a catalyst (usually platinum, but new materials have been discovered).

The positively charged hydrogen passes through a polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) to a cathode. Negatively charged ions are sent through an external circuit to the cathode, creating an electrical current. At the cathode, the two meet again, drawn together by their attraction to oxygen, and flow out of the cell, combining to form water.

Several of these cells are combined to create a fuel cell "pack" much in the same way batteries are combined to create a battery pack of the desired voltage output.

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