How Fuel Cells Work

Honda's FCX Concept Vehicle

Photo copyright 2007, courtesy

Fuel Cell Efficiency

P­ollution reduction is one of the primary goals of the fuel cell. By comparing a fuel-cell-powered car to a gasoline-engine-powered car and a battery-powered car, you can see how fuel cells might improve the efficiency of cars today.

Since all three types of cars have many of the same components (tires, transmissions, et cetera), we'll ignore that part of the car and compare efficiencies up to the point where mechanical power is generated. Let's start with the fuel-cell car. (All of these efficiencies are approximations, but they should be close enough to make a rough comparison.)

If the fuel cell is powered with pure hydrogen, it has the potential to be up to 80-percent efficient. That is, it converts 80 percent of the energy content of the hydrogen into electrical energy. However, we still need to convert the electrical energy into mechanical work. This is accomplished by the electric motor and inverter. A reasonable number for the efficiency of the motor/inverter is about 80 percent. So we have 80-percent efficiency in generating electricity, and 80-percent efficiency converting it to mechanical power. That gives an overall efficiency of about 64 percent. Honda's FCX concept vehicle reportedly has 60-percent energy efficiency.

If the fuel source isn't pure hydrogen, then the vehicle will also need a reformer. A reformer turns hydrocarbon or alcohol fuels into hydrogen. They generate heat and produce other gases besides hydrogen. They use various devices to try to clean up the hydrogen, but even so, the hydrogen that comes out of them is not pure, and this lowers the efficiency of the fuel cell. Because reformers impact fuel cell efficiency, DOE researches have decided to concentrate on pure hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, despite challenges associated with hydrogen production and storage.

Next, we'll learn about the efficiency of gasoline- and battery-powered cars.