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Fuel cell basics

There are several kinds of fuel cells, but in principle, every fuel cell operates something like a battery. It will produce energy in the form of electricity and heat as long as fuel is supplied.

A fuel cell consists of two electrodes sandwiched around an electrolyte. Oxygen passes over one electrode and hydrogen over the other, generating electricity, water and heat. Hydrogen fuel is fed into the “anode” of the fuel cell. Oxygen (or air) enters the fuel cell through the cathode. Encouraged by a catalyst, the hydrogen atom splits into a proton and an electron, which take different paths to the cathode. The proton passes through the electrolyte. The electrons create a separate current that can be utilized before they return to the cathode to be reunited with the hydrogen and oxygen in a molecule of water.

A fuel cell system which includes a “fuel reformer” can utilize the hydrogen from any hydrocarbon fuel – from natural gas to methanol or even gasoline. Since the fuel cell relies on chemistry and not combustion, emissions from this type of a system would still be much smaller than emissions from the cleanest fuel combustion processes.

This explanation comes from Fuel Cells 2000, an online reference. See www.fuelcells.org.