What is Fuel Cell – Types of Fuel Cell

What is Fuel Cell ? 

A fuel cell uses the chemical energy of hydrogen or another fuel to cleanly and efficiently produce electricity. If hydrogen is the fuel, electricity, water, and heat are the only products. Fuel cells are unique in terms of the variety of their potential applications; they can provide power for systems as large as a utility power station and as small as a laptop computer.

Fuel cells work like batteries, but they do not run down or need recharging. They produce electricity and heat as long as fuel is supplied. A fuel cell consists of two electrodes—a negative electrode (or anode) and a positive electrode (or cathode)—sandwiched around an electrolyte. A fuel, such as hydrogen, is fed to the anode, and air is fed to the cathode. In a hydrogen fuel cell, a catalyst at the anode separates hydrogen molecules into protons and electrons, which take different paths to the cathode. The electrons go through an external circuit, creating a flow of electricity. The protons migrate through the electrolyte to the cathode, where they unite with oxygen and the electrons to produce water and heat.

Proton Exchange Fuel Cell Diagram
Proton Exchange Fuel Cell Diagram

Types of fuel cells

Classification based on type of electrolyte

  • Phosphoric acid fuel cell (PAFC)
  • Polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cell (PEMFC)
  • Alkaline fuel cell (AFC)
  • Molten carbonate fuel cell (MCFC)
  • Solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC)



different types of fuel cell
different types of fuel cell

Fuel cells come in many varieties; however, they all work in the same general manner. They are made up of three adjacent segments: the anode, the electrolyte, and the cathode. Two chemical reactions occur at the interfaces of the three different segments. The net result of the two reactions is that fuel is consumed, water or carbon dioxide is created, and an electric current is created, which can be used to power electrical devices, normally referred to as the load.

Proton exchange membrane fuel cells (PEMFCs)

Polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cells—also called proton exchange membrane fuel cells—deliver high power density and offer the advantages of low weight and volume compared with other fuel cells. PEM fuel cells use a solid polymer as an electrolyte and porous carbon electrodes containing a platinum or platinum alloy catalyst. They need only hydrogen, oxygen from the air, and water to operate. They are typically fueled with pure hydrogen supplied from storage tanks or reformers.

Alkaline fuel cells
Alkaline fuel cells (AFCs) were one of the first fuel cell technologies developed, and they were the first type widely used in the U.S. space program to produce electrical energy and water on-board spacecraft. These fuel cells use a solution of potassium hydroxide in water as the electrolyte and can use a variety of non-precious metals as a catalyst at the anode and cathode. In recent years, novel AFCs that use a polymer membrane as the electrolyte have been developed. These fuel cells are closely related to conventional PEM fuel cells, except that they use an alkaline membrane instead of an acid membrane. The high performance of AFCs is due to the rate at which electro-chemical reactions take place in the cell. They have also demonstrated efficiencies above 60% in space applications.

Molten carbonate fuel cells
Molten carbonate fuel cells (MCFCs) are currently being developed for natural gas and coal-based power plants for electrical utility, industrial, and military applications. MCFCs are high-temperature fuel cells that use an electrolyte composed of a molten carbonate salt mixture suspended in a porous, chemically inert ceramic lithium aluminum oxide matrix. Because they operate at high temperatures of 650°C (roughly 1,200°F), non-precious metals can be used as catalysts at the anode and cathode, reducing costs.

Solid oxide fuel cells
Solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) use a hard, non-porous ceramic compound as the electrolyte. SOFCs are around 60% efficient at converting fuel to electricity. In applications designed to capture and utilize the system’s waste heat (co-generation), overall fuel use efficiencies could top 85%.

SOFCs operate at very high temperatures—as high as 1,000°C (1,830°F). High-temperature operation removes the need for precious-metal catalyst, thereby reducing cost. It also allows SOFCs to reform fuels internally, which enables the use of a variety of fuels and reduces the cost associated with adding a reformer to the system.

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