Proton Exchange Membrane
The proton exchange membrane fuel cell (PEMFC) uses one of the simplest reactions of any fuel cell. First, let's take a look at what's in a PEM fuel cell:

Figure 1. The parts of a PEM fuel cell

In Figure 1 you can see there are four basic elements of a PEMFC:

  • The anode, the negative post of the fuel cell, has several jobs. It conducts the electrons that are freed from the hydrogen molecules so that they can be used in an external circuit. It has channels etched into it that disperse the hydrogen gas equally over the surface of the catalyst.
  • The cathode, the positive post of the fuel cell, has channels etched into it that distribute the oxygen to the surface of the catalyst. It also conducts the electrons back from the external circuit to the catalyst, where they can recombine with the hydrogen ions and oxygen to form water.
  • The electrolyte is the proton exchange membrane. This specially treated material, which looks something like ordinary kitchen plastic wrap, only conducts positively charged ions. The membrane blocks electrons.
  • The catalyst is a special material that facilitates the reaction of oxygen and hydrogen. It is usually made of platinum powder very thinly coated onto carbon paper or cloth. The catalyst is rough and porous so that the maximum surface area of the platinum can be exposed to the hydrogen or oxygen. The platinum-coated side of the catalyst faces the PEM.

Figure 2. Animation of a fuel cell working

Chemistry of a Fuel Cell

Anode side:
2H2 => 4H+ + 4e-

Cathode side:
O2 + 4H+ + 4e- => 2H2O

Net reaction:
2H2 + O2 => 2H2O

Figure 2 shows the pressurized hydrogen gas (H2) entering the fuel cell on the anode side. This gas is forced through the catalyst by the pressure. When an H2 molecule comes in contact with the platinum on the catalyst, it splits into two H+ ions and two electrons (e-). The electrons are conducted through the anode, where they make their way through the external circuit (doing useful work such as turning a motor) and return to the cathode side of the fuel cell.

Meanwhile, on the cathode side of the fuel cell, oxygen gas (O2) is being forced through the catalyst, where it forms two oxygen atoms. Each of these atoms has a strong negative charge. This negative charge attracts the two H+ ions through the membrane, where they combine with an oxygen atom and two of the electrons from the external circuit to form a water molecule (H2O).

This reaction in a single fuel cell produces only about 0.7 volts. To get this voltage up to a reasonable level, many separate fuel cells must be combined to form a fuel-cell stack.

PEMFCs operate at a fairly low temperature (about 176 degrees Fahrenheit, 80 degrees Celsius), which means they warm up quickly and don't require expensive containment structures. Constant improvements in the engineering and materials used in these cells have increased the power density to a level where a device about the size of a small piece of luggage can power a car.