A fuel cell is a device that converts the chemical energy from a fuel into electricity through a chemical reaction of positively charged hydrogen ions with oxygen or another oxidizing agent. Fuel cells are different from batteries in that they require a continuous source of fuel and oxygen or air to sustain the chemical reaction, whereas in a battery the chemicals present in the battery react with each other to generate an electromotive force (emf). Fuel cells can produce electricity continuously for as long as these inputs are supplied.
The first fuel cells were invented in 1838. The first commercial use of fuel cells came more than a century later in NASA space programs to generate power for satellites and space capsules. Since then, fuel cells have been used in many other applications. Fuel cells are used for primary and backup power for commercial, industrial and residential buildings and in remote or inaccessible areas. They are also used to power fuel cell vehicles, including forklifts, automobiles, buses, boats, motorcycles and submarines.
There are many types of fuel cells, but they all consist of an anode, a cathode, and an electrolyte that allows positively charged hydrogen ions (or protons) to move between the two sides of the fuel cell. The anode and cathode contain catalysts that cause the fuel to undergo oxidation reactions that generate positively charged hydrogen ions and electrons. The hydrogen ions are drawn through the electrolyte after the reaction. At the same time, electrons are drawn from the anode to the cathode through an external circuit, producing direct current electricity. At the cathode, hydrogen ions, electrons, and oxygen react to form water.
As the main difference among fuel cell types is the electrolyte, fuel cells are classified by the type of electrolyte they use and by the difference in startup time ranging from 1 second for proton exchange membrane fuel cells (PEM fuel cells, or PEMFC) to 10 minutes for solid oxide fuel cells (SOFC). Individual fuel cells produce relatively small electrical potentials, about 0.7 volts, so cells are "stacked", or placed in series, to create sufficient voltage to meet an application's requirements. In addition to electricity, fuel cells produce water, heat and, depending on the fuel source, very small amounts of nitrogen dioxide and other emissions. The energy efficiency of a fuel cell is generally between 40–60%, or up to 85% efficient in cogeneration if waste heat is captured for use.
As of 2015, two fuel cell vehicles have been introduced for commercial lease and sale in limited quantities: Toyota and the Hyundai Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs). Additional demonstration models include the Honda, and Mercedes-Benz. As of June 2011 demonstration FCEVs had driven more than 4,800,000 km (3,000,000 mi), with more than 27,000 refuelings. Demonstration fuel cell vehicles have been produced with "a driving range of more than 400 km (250 mi) between refueling". They can be refueled in less than 5 minutes.
The U.S. Department of Energy's Fuel Cell Technology Program claims that, as of 2011, fuel cells achieved 53–59% efficiency at one-quarter power and 42–53% vehicle efficiency at full power, and a durability of over 120,000 km (75,000 mi) with less than 10% degradation. In a Well-to-Wheels simulation analysis that "did not address the economics and market constraints", General Motors and its partners estimated that per mile traveled, a fuel cell electric vehicle running on compressed gaseous hydrogen produced from natural gas could use about 40% less energy and emit 45% less greenhouse gasses than an internal combustion vehicle. A lead engineer from the Department of Energy whose team is testing fuel cell cars said in 2011 that the potential appeal is that "these are full-function vehicles with no limitations on range or refueling rate so they are a direct replacement for any vehicle.
For instance, if you drive a full sized SUV and pull a boat up into the mountains, you can do that with this technology and you can't with current battery-only vehicles, which are more geared toward city driving." But the fuel cell market is growing, and Pike Research has estimated that the stationary fuel cell market will reach 50 GW by 2020.....