How Does a Fuel Cell for Hydrogen Work?

If you are a sustainability enthusiast, you’ve probably come across hydrogen fuel cells. So, what are they and how do they work? Most importantly, why are these fuel cells making headlines these days? Undoubtedly, there must be something unique fuel cells for hydrogen. In this article, we are going to take a look at them and explore the most important areas about these cells. So, without further ado, here we go: 

What’s a Fuel Cell for Hydrogen?

A hydrogen fuel cell is simply a fuel cell that uses chemical energy of hydrogen to generate electricity. It is a clean fuel cell in the sense that during the production of electricity, the only by products that are released are heat and water. 

Hydrogen fuel cells are highly versatile and hence can be used in a variety of applications. More precisely, a hydrogen fuel cell can power a small system such as a laptop and can also be used to meet power needs of large systems. But that’s not all. They can also be used as emergency back-up power and even in transportation. 

Unlike traditional combustion based energy sources, hydrogen fuel cells are highly efficient and with lower amounts of emissions. As already said, they only emit water in the process hence they do not pose any threat of pollution with carbon dioxide. Interestingly, during operation or while providing energy, hydrogen fuel cells are much quieter. 

How Does It Work?

A hydrogen fuel cell generates electricity through a reaction process. How does it happen? Well, each hydrogen fuel cell has two electrodes. That is, a positive cathode and a negative anode. The chemical reaction that leads to the production of electricity happens in these electrodes. Usually, there is an electrolyte that carries charged particles and there is also a catalyst whose role is to speed up the reaction process. 

In a hydrogen fuel cell, hydrogen acts as a fuel. For these cells to work, oxygen is required. As hydrogen and oxygen react or combine to produce energy or electricity that is needed, water is produced in the process as a by-product. The process is clean and free of carbon, that’s why hydrogen fuel cells have been promoted as the best source of clean energy. 

To paint a clearer picture of what happens until energy or electricity is produces, here is what usually happens:

  • Atoms of hydrogen enter through the anode while oxygen enters through the cathode
  • Atoms of hydrogen are split into protons and electrons at the negative electrode (anode)
  • Protons and electrons are forced to produce electricity through a circuit
  • Electrons and protons combine at the cathode and heat & water are released as by-products 

Depending on the amount of energy or electricity needed, hydrogen fuel cells are usually arranged into different stacks. More stacks means more power and fewer or just a single fuel cell produces a small amount of energy. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that hydrogen fuel cells are highly efficient when it comes of energy production. 

To some extent, hydrogen fuel cells work like batteries. However, they do not often run down or require recharging like batteries. As long as hydrogen which is the fuel source is supplied, the cells will continue producing electricity.  For this reason, hydrogen fuel cells are highly reliable when it comes to the supply of energy. The most interesting part is that they can be used to power a wide range of applications.

What Are Hydrogen Fuel Cells Used For?

While research and development works are ongoing about the use or applications of hydrogen fuel cells, at the moment, there is evidence that they are useful at home and even in businesses. Here are the most common uses of hydrogen fuel cells:

  • Powering small portable devices
  • Home and industrial applications 
  • Cogeneration systems 
  • Transport applications 
  • Other applications 

As a precaution, you should beware that the transition into the hydrogen power is not yet complete. So, these uses plus the many advantages being said about hydrogen are things that we would say that we are yet to start celebrating. For now, all that’s happening is trial, but based on what’s going on and the political support, there is hope that hydrogen might soon be world’s leading source of clean and renewable energy.  

Final Take 

Unlike the traditional combustion-based energy sources, hydrogen fuel cells work differently to produce electricity. As illustrated, the only thing they emit is water. So with these cells, there is nothing to worry about regarding carbon emission and other pollutants that have been of great concern to the world. Also, the fact that they are quiet during operation makes them a promising energy source for the future if things work out as expected. For now, we can only hope that amazing technologies will be discovered that will help us utilize hydrogen fuel cells.