Hydrogen Fuel Cell Working Principles

Hydrogen fuel cells are becoming an increasingly popular alternative to more traditional forms of energy storage. In fact, recent studies suggest that the global value of this industry is set to exceed $19.5 billion dollars by the year 2027. [1] Why is this the case? Will hydrogen become a universally viable solution and if so, what bespoke advantages can it provide? Answering these questions will require us to address a handful of hydrogen fuel cell working principles. Let's review how a typical fuel cell functions before highlighting some practical applications.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Working Principles: All About Green Efficiency

How does a hydrogen fuel cell work? We should first make it a point to stress that the following details will only represent a general overview as opposed to a more in-depth white paper. There are nonetheless several useful observations that can be made.

These fuel cells rely upon chemical reactions to produce power. The anode (positive terminal) and the cathode (negative terminal) are two core components. An electrolyte is then placed between these two electrodes. Charged particles will freely pass through this medium. As you might have already guessed, hydrogen is a crucial component within these cells. It is still interesting to mention that oxygen is likewise required. Let us now summarise how these fuel cells are actually able to produce power. Here is a quick step-by-step overview [2]:

  • Hydrogen is directed to the anode while oxygen is sent to the cathode.
  • Atomic hydrogen is broken down into its core components (electrons and protons) at the anode.
  • As hydrogen protons carry a positive charge, they will pass through the electrolyte to the cathode (the negative terminal).
  • The existing negatively charged electrons are "pushed" away from the cathode; resulting in a flow of electricity.

The principles of this fuel cell technology provides an efficient means to produce electricity. However, we should mention a crucial difference between the methods outlined above and a typical battery.

Unlike traditional batteries (such as lead-acid or lithium-ion configurations), these fuel cells will not need to be regularly recharged. This is under the assumption that the two main sources of fuel (oxygen and hydrogen) remain present.

What Goes Into the Construction of Fuel Cells?

A typical fuel cell utilising hydrogen is comprised of three main components (as mentioned earlier):

  • An anode
  • A cathode
  • An electrolytic reservoir

This is extremely advantageous, as there are no moving parts or complicated elements. The cells are therefore extremely durable and reliable. Simply stated, they will require very little maintenance. [3] The only possible issue involves instances when the long-term presence of hydrogen can begin to corrode the terminals. In such cases, replacements may be warranted. This is still a small price to pay when we consider the environmentally friendly advantages that these cells can provide. Let's address this issue in more detail immediately below.

What Emissions are Produced by These Fuel Cells?

As recently highlighted in an article written by the Times of India, one of the most notable advantages of fuel cells employing hydrogen involves emissions. The byproducts of hydrogen fuel cell use are limited to water vapour and a relatively small amount of heat. [4] Furthermore, this very same heat can sometimes be harnessed for additional uses. This is a far cry from the pollutants associated with traditional batteries that can cause drastic harm to the environment.

The issue with other storage solutions such as lithium-ion and lead acid batteries involves the simple fact that these methods rely upon heavy metals. Heavy metals pose a profound danger to humans as well as to nature. Other dangers such as spontaneous combustion under specific circumstances have been attributed to lithium-ion batteries. [5] Hydrogen cell technology is able to avert such serious risks.

How Does a Hydrogen Cell Differ from Direct Methanol Fuel Cells?

The team at SFC Energy offers EFOY direct methanol fuel cells as well as EFOY hydrogen fuel cells within our wide array of products. So, what are the differences between these two sources of power? The details can be found within the finer points.

While each offers an eco-friendly means to address pertinent issues such as climate change and global warming, the means of energy production are where things begin to diverge. We have already seen how hydrogen cells function in relation to the process of breaking down elemental hydrogen into protons and electrons.

Direct methanol fuel cell technology (often referred to as "DMFC") is instead powered by pure methanol. This ingredient is then mixed with water before being passed on to the anode (the positive terminal). While hydrogen is produced, carbon dioxide also results as a side product. [6] Although this might appear to be a slight drawback, DMFC cells tend to offer a higher power output when compared to hydrogen configurations.

What are the Practical Applications of Hydrogen?

Hydrogen fuel supplies are comparatively new to the marketplace and yet, they have already established a firm foundation thanks to the sheet number of applications alone. To appreciate this observation, here are some contemporary examples [7]:

  • Back-up power supplies within the industrial sector (such as warehouses, production facilities and as an addition to SCADA systems).
  • Off-grid sources of redundant power in the event that mains electricity is not available.
  • Traffic control and monitoring systems.
  • Public and private transportation.
  • Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
  • Maritime transport.

While this selection is impressive in and of itself, it could very well represent nothing more than the tip of the proverbial iceberg. As nations continue to grapple with increasingly stringent carbon reduction targets, there is little doubt that hydrogen cells will become even more prevalent.

A Balanced Perspective: Possible Drawbacks

SFC with the EFOY fuel cell products always strives to provide our clients with a circumspect appreciation of what the latest green technology has to offer. While the advantages attributed to hydrogen fuel cells are impossible to overstate, the industry still faces a handful of possible stumbling blocks. These come in the form of:

  • Some types of fuel cells require rare metals such as iridium and platinum; both are somewhat expensive to mine and refine.
  • Complexities regarding the storage and transportation of hydrogen.
  • These fuel cells are still expensive when compared to alternatives such as photovoltaic (PV) methods.
  • Possible regulatory issues in the future.

However, the massive advantages that have already been attributed to the operating of hydrogen fuel cell technology far outweigh the pitfalls highlighted above.

SFC Energy wants to provide our customers with all of the latest information so that they are capable of making informed decisions at the right times. We are also fully committed to keeping abreast of any advancements so that these can be passed on to the end user. As hydrogen cell technology is a slightly complicated concept, we encourage you to contact us if you have additional queries.

  • [1[ https://www.bccresearch.com/market-research/energy-and-resources/hydrogen-fuel-cell-market.html
  • [2] https://www.twi-global.com/technical-knowledge/faqs/what-is-a-hydrogen-fuel-cell
  • [3] https://fuelcellsworks.com/news/what-everyone-needs-to-know-about-fuel-cell-care-and-maintenance/
  • [4] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/readersblog/beyondtheswitch/embracing-hydrogen-a-promising-fuel-for-indias-sustainable-future-55719/
  • [5] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877705817362847/pdf
  • [6] https://www.energy.gov/eere/fuelcells/types-fuel-cells
  • [7] https://wha-international.com/10-hydrogen-fuel-cell-applications-you-might-not-know/