Most notably, hydrogen fuel cells are used to power cars, buses and trains as a clean alternative to traditional petrol and diesel engines, which burn fuel to produce the energy they require.
Not only are hydrogen fuel cell vehicles a clean alternative, emitting only water from the tailpipe, these vehicles also refuel quickly with comparable driving ranges to traditional vehicles. This use is evolving with emerging applications to power delivery vans, trucks and fork lifts as well as boats and ships.
From powering engines in cars to forklifts and schools, here’s how hydrogen fuel cells are changing the face of the energy industry:
How does a hydrogen fuel cell work?
Hydrogen fuel cells convert chemical energy into electrical energy by converting hydrogen gas and oxygen into water.
Oxygen is readily available in the atmosphere, so it’s only necessary to supply the fuel cell with hydrogen, which happens to be the most common element available on Earth. Beyond its availability, it’s also possible to produce more hydrogen from water electrolysis using solar or wind energy. In this way, it’s possible to generate hydrogen fuel cell power entirely carbon emission-free.
How a fuel cell turns chemical energy into electrical power
To turn hydrogen and oxygen into electricity, every fuel cell needs three components - an anode and a cathode, and an electrolyte membrane. The substance contained in the electrolyte can vary in different types of fuel cells.
Hydrogen enters the fuel cell at the anode, and oxygen at the cathode.
Platinum metal is most often used as part of the anode catalyst. When pressurised hydrogen enters the fuel cell at the anode, the platinum-containing catalyst separates it into protons (H+) and electrons (e-).
The protons travel through the electrolyte membrane towards the cathode where electrons are diverted to an external circuit that generates an electrical current. The electrons then move towards the cathode to combine with the oxygen and protons—forming a water molecule.
The water molecule is the only direct emission of a fuel cell, aside from a small amount of heat.
To learn more about the way fuel cell technology is changing sustainable power, check out these articles: