What is a Fuel Cell?

Several different items have co-opted the name “fuel cell.” A style of Oakley sunglasses. A really cool diaper bag. A bladder inside the gas tank of a NASCAR racer.

Our fuel cell is an electrochemical device that converts hydrogen and oxygen into electricity. Fuel cell electric vehicles use a PEM fuel cell—proton exchange membrane. In its simplest form, a PEM fuel cell is two electrodes—the anode and the cathode—separated by a catalyst-coated membrane. The catalyst separates hydrogen into its components—a proton and an electron. The proton moves through the membrane to reach the anode, whereas the electron is forced to follow an alternate path which creates useable elctricity for the vehicle's motor and other applications. Once the proton and electron reach the anode, they combine with oxygen and eventually create water—the only emission from these vehicles.

A single fuel cell cannot provide enough electricity to power a car, so a fuel cell stack is used. A fuel cell stack is made up of many PEM fuel cells that are stacked together, like slices in a loaf of bread. The stack generates electricity that powers the vehicle as long as fuel is supplied. When the fuel tank runs low, you stop at a hydrogen station and refill it in a few minutes. Then you’re back on the road and ready to go!


Thank you to the California Fuel Cell Partnership for providing these materials.

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