What Is A Fuel Cell?
The discussion of fuel cells is a very technical and complex one but can be reduced to some basic elements to make it easier to understand. When most people have interest in fuel cells it is in reference to the type currently in development for use in passenger cars, known as the PEMFC (Polymer Exchange Membrane Fuel Cell).
A fuel cell is not a battery, and requires an input of fuel to maintain operation. Unlike the chemicals sealed inside a battery that lose the ability to produce electricity with use, the fuel cell can produce electricity as long as fuel is available to continue the electrochemical reaction. Thus the fuel cell could in some ways be understood as a type of “battery” that can be fed fresh chemicals on a constant basis to produce electricity without needing to be charged. Instead of being charged by an external source of electricity like a battery, the feeding of fuel into the cell adds energy and keeps the electricity flowing.
The fuel that powers the cell has varied over time from the invention of the fuel cell in 1838 to the use of fuel cell technology by NASA in the 1960’s but due to the rise in production of hydrogen gas via electrolysis (splitting of purified water into hydrogen and oxygen using electricity) the most popular fuel for fuel cell cars currently in development is hydrogen gas. Using oxygen from the air around us, the fuel cell operates by first splitting the hydrogen into positive ions and electrons. The electrons then produce an electrical charge, which flows out to the motor and then back into the other side of the cell where it is combined with the positive hydrogen ions and oxygen from the air, eventually turning the used hydrogen back into water.