How does a hydrogen fuel cell generate electricity?August 5, 2023
Combining H2 and oxygen atoms across an electrochemical cell produces electricity, water and a bit of heat.
Though most people hadn’t even heard of a hydrogen fuel cell a handful of years ago, their increasingly widespread use as a component of decarbonization projects means that it is becoming an everyday concept. That said, while people have now heard of them, few understand just how they work.
These units are being developed and tested for powering everything from cars to data centers.
A hydrogen fuel cell produced electricity through the combination of H2 and oxygen atoms. The reaction occurs between the two types of atoms across an electrochemical cell, not unlike the way a battery works. The outcome is electricity, water, and some heat, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
These units aren’t anything new, despite the fact that they have only recently been making regular headlines. In fact, they are used for powering spacecraft electrical systems. They are also used for powering many systems back on Earth as well. For instance, smaller versions have been created to power devices such as phones and laptops.
Increasingly, vehicle manufacturers are developing technology for powering everything from passenger cars to heavy-duty machinery. A number of companies have been testing and using larger versions of these units to provide emergency power or electricity in remote locations without access to the grid.
For a hydrogen fuel cell to work, it needs to receive a supply of molecular H2 to react with the oxygen.
H2 is the energy carrier that is converted directly into electricity with low power losses and high efficiency. That said, the H2 can be transported and stored until it is needed, unlike the electricity generated from renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power. That said, those types of renewable energy can be used to power green hydrogen production, so that the H2 can later be used for electricity production on demand.
According to Plug Power citing the US Department of Energy, the typical unit is usually between 40 percent and 60 percent energy efficient. The range is comparable to an average car’s internal combustion engine, which is around 25 percent energy efficient.
Electric vehicles powered by H2
Vehicles powered by a hydrogen fuel cell are essentially electric vehicles. They have electric motors. That said, instead of relying on a large, heavy battery which must be recharged by plugging it into a source of electricity, they produce their electricity on board by adding H2 to the unit.
FAQ’s about how hydrogen generates electricity
1. How does a hydrogen fuel cell generate electricity? A hydrogen fuel cell generates electricity by combining hydrogen (H2) and oxygen atoms across an electrochemical cell. This reaction produces electricity, water, and a small amount of heat.2. Are hydrogen fuel cells a new technology? No, hydrogen fuel cells have been used for powering spacecraft electrical systems and various applications on Earth for quite some time. They are now gaining more attention as a component of decarbonization projects.
3. What are some applications of hydrogen fuel cells? Hydrogen fuel cells are being developed and tested for a wide range of applications, including powering cars, data centers, phones, laptops, and even emergency power in remote locations without access to the grid.
4. How does a hydrogen fuel cell work? To function, a hydrogen fuel cell requires a supply of molecular hydrogen (H2) to react with oxygen. H2 acts as the energy carrier that is directly converted into electricity with high efficiency and minimal power losses.
5. Can renewable energy sources be used to produce hydrogen for fuel cells? Yes, renewable energy sources like solar and wind power can be used to generate electricity to produce green hydrogen. This hydrogen can then be stored and later used in fuel cells to generate electricity on demand.
6. How energy efficient are hydrogen fuel cells? According to Plug Power citing the US Department of Energy, typical hydrogen fuel cells have an energy efficiency range between 40% and 60%. This is comparable to the energy efficiency of an average car’s internal combustion engine, which is around 25%.
7. Are vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells considered electric vehicles? Yes, vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells are essentially electric vehicles as they use electric motors. However, instead of relying on large batteries that need to be recharged from an external source, these vehicles produce electricity on board by adding hydrogen to the fuel cell.