Critical Power Supplies has pleasure in bringing you the following information on Fuel cell design and how they work.

A fuel cell is an electrochemical cell that converts a source fuel into an electrical current. It generates electricity inside a cell through reactions between a fuel and an oxidant, triggered in the presence of an electrolyte. The reactants flow into the cell, and the reaction products flow out of it, while the electrolyte remains within it. Fuel cells can operate continuously as long as the necessary reactant and oxidant flows are maintained.

Fuel cells are different from conventional electrochemical cell batteries in that they consume reactant from an external source, which must be replenished – a thermodynamically open system. By contrast, batteries store electrical energy chemically and hence represent a thermodynamically closed system.

Many combinations of fuels and oxidants are possible. A hydrogen fuel cell uses hydrogen as its fuel and oxygen (usually from air) as its oxidant. Other fuels include hydrocarbons and alcohols. Other oxidants include chlorine and chlorine dioxide

Fuel cell design

Fuel cells come in many varieties; however, they all work in the same general manner. They are made up of three segments which are sandwiched together: 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 electrical current is created, which can be used to power electrical devices, normally referred to as the load.

At the anode a catalyst oxidizes the fuel, usually hydrogen, turning the fuel into a positively charged ion and a negatively charged electron. The electrolyte is a substance specifically designed so ions can pass through it, but the electrons cannot. The freed electrons travel through a wire creating the electrical current. The ions travel through the electrolyte to the cathode. Once reaching the cathode, the ions are reunited with the electrons and the two react with a third chemical, usually oxygen, to create water or carbon dioxide.

The most important design features in a fuel cell are:

- The electrolyte substance. The electrolyte substance usually defines the type of fuel cell.
- The fuel that is used. The most common fuel is hydrogen.
- The anode catalyst, which breaks down the fuel into electrons and ions. The anode catalyst is usually made up of very fine platinum powder.
- The cathode catalyst, which turns the ions into the waste chemicals like water or carbon dioxide. The cathode catalyst is often made up of nickel.

A typical fuel cell produces a voltage from 0.6 V to 0.7 V at full rated load. Voltage decreases as current increases, due to several factors:

- Activation loss
- Ohmic loss (voltage drop due to resistance of the cell components and interconnects)
- Mass transport loss (depletion of reactants at catalyst sites under high loads, causing rapid loss of voltage).

To deliver the desired amount of energy, the fuel cells can be combined in series and parallel circuits, where series yields higher voltage, and parallel allows a higher current to be supplied. Such a design is called a fuel cell stack. Further, the cell surface area can be increased, to allow stronger current from each cell.

Proton exchange fuel cells

In the archetypal hydrogen–oxygen proton exchange membrane fuel cell (PEMFC) design, a proton-conducting polymer membrane, (the electrolyte), separates the anode and cathode sides. This was called a “solid polymer electrolyte fuel cell” (SPEFC) in the early 1970s, before the proton exchange mechanism was well-understood. (Notice that “polymer electrolyte membrane” and “proton exchange mechanism” result in the same acronym.)

On the anode side, hydrogen diffuses to the anode catalyst where it later dissociates into protons and electrons. These protons often react with oxidants causing them to become what is commonly referred to as multi-facilitated proton membranes. The protons are conducted through the membrane to the cathode, but the electrons are forced to travel in an external circuit (supplying power) because the membrane is electrically insulating. On the cathode catalyst, oxygen molecules react with the electrons (which have traveled through the external circuit) and protons to form water — in this example, the only waste product, either liquid or vapor.

In addition to this pure hydrogen type, there are hydrocarbon fuels for fuel cells, including diesel, methanol (see: direct-methanol fuel cells and indirect methanol fuel cells) and chemical hydrides. The waste products with these types of fuel are carbon dioxide and water.

The materials used in fuel cells differ by type. In a typical membrane electrode assembly (MEA), the electrode–bipolar plates are usually made of metal, nickel or carbon nanotubes, and are coated with a catalyst (like platinum, nano iron powders or palladium) for higher efficiency. Carbon paper separates them from the electrolyte. The electrolyte could be ceramic or a membrane.

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