What is a Fuel Cell?
A fuel cell is an electrochemical energy conversion device that converts hydrogen and oxygen into water, producing electricity and heat in the process. It is very much like a battery that can be recharged while you are drawing power from it. Instead of recharging using electricity, however, a fuel cell uses hydrogen and oxygen.


Photo courtesy Ballard Power Systems
A fuel-cell stack that could power an automobile
The fuel cell will compete with many other types of energy conversion devices, including the gas turbine in your city's power plant, the gasoline engine in your car and the battery in your laptop. Combustion engines like the turbine and the gasoline engine burn fuels and use the pressure created by the expansion of the gases to do mechanical work. Batteries store electrical energy by converting it into chemical energy, which can be converted back into electrical energy when needed.

A fuel cell provides a DC (direct current) voltage that can be used to power motors, lights or any number of electrical appliances. There are several different types of fuel cells, each using a different chemistry. Fuel cells are usually classified by the type of electrolyte they use. Some types of fuel cells show promise for use in power generation plants. Others may be useful for small portable applications or for powering cars.

The proton exchange membrane fuel cell (PEMFC) is one of the most promising technologies. This is the type of fuel cell that will end up powering cars, buses and maybe even your house.