Figure 1. The parts of a PEM fuel cell­

Polymer Exchange Membrane Fuel Cells

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

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. For a PEMFC, the membrane must be hydrated in order to function and remain stable.
  • The catalyst is a special material that facilitates the reaction of oxygen and hydrogen. It is usually made of platinum nanoparticles 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 working fuel cell

­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. Bipolar plates are used to connect one fuel cell to another and are subjected to both oxidizing and reducing conditions and potentials. A big issue with bipolar plates is stability. Metallic bipolar plates can corrode, and the byproducts of corrosion (iron and chromium ions) can decrease the effectiveness of fuel cell membranes and electrodes. Low-temperature fuel cells use lightweight metals, graphite and carbon/thermoset composites (thermoset is a kind of plastic that remains rigid even when subjected to high temperatures) as bipolar plate material.

In the next section, we'll see how efficient fuel-cell vehicles can be.