The Basics: How hydrogen fuel cells work

The Basics: How hydrogen fuel cells work

June 4, 2022 0 By Frankie Wallace

How is H2 being used to power electric engines in vehicles without producing carbon emissions?

As the world seeks decarbonization, many countries and companies are looking to hydrogen fuel cells and H2 production as an alternative to greenhouse gas emitting fossil fuels.

As the technology finds itself more regularly in the headlines, many are asking how it works.

Hydrogen fuel cells are increasingly viewed as a leading solution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. As such, many are wondering how this emission-free green technology works and why H2-powered engines would be considered more appropriate than battery electrics for many applications.

While the Toyota Mirai has yet to prove to drivers that H2 is the best option for passenger vehicles – where battery electrics hold a solid lead – the same cannot be said for ships, aircraft, buses, trains, trucks and even industry such as steelmaking.  The power, rapid refilling (which takes about the same time as filling a conventional tank with gasoline) and range are all in H2’s favor in those circumstances.

hydrogen fuel cells and how it works

How do hydrogen fuel cells work to power electric engines?

Said quite simply, a fuel cell generates electricity by benefiting from the attraction naturally occurring between hydrogen (H) and oxygen (O) molecules.  Pure H2 is fed into these units which are equipped with a membrane that allows positive H particles to pass through into a chamber containing ambient air (where O is present). There, the H is naturally attracted to the O. 

On the other hand, the negative H particles are sent in a different direction, causing an electron flow that provides the electricity that will power the engine.  Once the negative H has been used as energy, those particles are sent into the chamber with the ambient air containing the O and positive H.

The H particles combine with the O out of natural attraction, producing H2O, otherwise known as water, which – along with heat – are the only emissions produced by this process.

Naturally, the process is more complex than this, as it involves additional components such as a platinum catalyst along the way. That said, this provides an understanding of the basic principles behind how hydrogen fuel cells can power an electric engine without greenhouse gas emissions or needing to plug in a battery to recharge.

Hydrogen questions answered

hydrogen news and how hydrogen energy worksH2 Spotlight Question – What do you mean by hydrogen energy? Get the information here! Countries, automakers and oil giants have been focusing on the opportunity presented by hydrogen energy. This is true both in its use in transport, shipping, aviation, and industry, as well as in its production. Even Saudi Aramco, BP and Shell news headlines have included H2.  HFN has all the answers you need about what this fuel is all about. Check out our Hydrogen Learning Center for more details and download our free ebook to get to know how it all comes together. Sign up below to get the newsletter so you won’t miss any of the latest news.