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08 Aug 2016 12:08:35

Fuel Cells - a Brief Overview

A fuel cell is a device that uses a source of fuel and an oxidant to create electricity by virtue of an electrochemical process. Much like the hordes of batteries used in automobiles, a fuel cell essentially converts chemical energy to electrical energy.

Browse: Fuel Cells Market

There are many parallels between the generic batteries that produce electricity we see in our daily lives and a fuel cell but at the same time, there are also many differences.

Let’s speak of the similarities first:

Both convert chemical energy into electrical energy by virtue of a chemical reaction, for which the presence of certain chemical substances is required. Both have two electrodes, an anode and a cathode, where the chemical reactions take place. An Electrolyte, substance that carries the electrically charged particles between electrodes and a Catalyst, substance that speeds up the chemical reaction, are also common in both devices.

Now let’s have a look at the differences:

Fuel cells do not require electrical recharging as batteries do. All chemical substances required for the chemical reaction in a battery are stored inside it. Once these chemicals run-out or become less reactive, the battery expires. On the other hand, a fuel cell is supplied with all the essential chemical substances (the fuel of the cell) from outside the cell. As such, it never runs out of them as long as the external supply is not terminated.

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Also, unlike batteries, fuel cells generate electricity without combustion and in the cleanest form – even its byproduct is water.

How do fuel cells work?

There are many kinds of fuel cells and all of them work slightly differently. But in the general sense, when hydrogen atoms enter the cell at the anode, it combines with the oxygen (i.e. ambient air), giving rise to an electrochemical reaction. In the process, both hydrogen and oxygen get ionized and get stripped of their electrons.

Both the hydrogen and oxygen atoms, which are now carrying positive charges due to ionization, are transported towards the cathode to form water. The negatively charged free electrons released in the electrolyte form the electric current, which can be transported through wires to do the work.


There are three major benefits of fuel cells:

they creates energy in the cleanest form, the only byproduct is water
they stop working only when the supply of hydrogen and oxygen to them ceases and do not require electrical recharging
since they create energy by a chemical reaction and not by combustion as in conventional power plants, their use is not limited by the thermodynamics laws limiting the conventional power plants

So, why are they not very popular and common yet?

The basic working of fuel cells may well seem easy to illustrate. But building reliable, inexpensive and efficient versions of them is a far more difficult business.

Many different types of cells have been designed and formulated by researchers over the years in search of an efficient model.

But many issues arise due to the choice of electrolyte for the cell, which is not very abundant currently. In fact, only five major varieties – alkali, phosphoric acid, molten carbonate, solid oxide and proton exchange membrane – are in use.

The choice of electrolytes has a major effect on every aspect of a fuel cell. Such as, design of electrodes and the material used for making them both depend on the electrolyte being chosen. The type of fuel also depends on the electrolyte in the cell. Why only this, the operating temperature and the requirement of additional functionalities in the cell, such as pumps to circulate liquid electrolyte, also depend on the choice of electrolyte.

So, hardly any cheaper and efficient model of fuel cells is available in the today’s market, especially of the kind that would stand good enough to replace the conventional power generators.

Let us have a brief overview of the global scenario of the fuel cell market. But wait. Does any such market exist? Yes it does. And it is flourishing.

Global market analysts estimate that the use of various kinds of fuels in applications such as automobiles, data centers, telecommunications and forklifts is on a constant rise throughout the world. In the year 2011, this industry collected revenues of nearly USD 355 millions. In the next five years, this figure can well grow to USD 910.3 millions, growing at a CAGR of 15.0%, says a forecast report by Transparency Market Research.

The current demands as well as future growth opportunities seem bright in the Asia Pacific and North American parts of the world. Demand from European countries for sustainable fuel cells is also on a significant rise.

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