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How Fuel Cells Work

Fuel Cell Problems

Fuel cells might be the answer to our power problems, but first scientists will have to sort out a few major issues:


Chief among the problems associated with fuel cells is how expensive they are. Many of the component pieces of a fuel cell are costly. For PEMFC systems, proton exchange membranes, precious metal catalysts (usually platinum), gas diffusion layers, and bipolar plates make up 70 percent of a system's cost [Source: Basic Research Needs for a Hydrogen Economy]. In order to be competitively priced (compared to gasoline-powered vehicles), fuel cell systems must cost $35 per kilowatt. Currently, the projected high-volume production price is $73 per kilowatt [Source: Garland]. In particular, researchers must either decrease the amount of platinum needed to act as a catalyst or find an alternative.



Researchers must develop PEMFC membranes that are durable and can operate at temperatures greater than 100 degrees Celsius and still function at sub-zero ambient temperatures. A 100 degrees Celsius temperature target is required in order for a fuel cell to have a higher tolerance to impurities in fuel. Because you start and stop a car relatively frequently, it is important for the membrane to remain stable under cycling conditions. Currently membranes tend to degrade while fuel cells cycle on and off, particularly as operating temperatures rise.


Because PEMFC membranes must by hydrated in order to transfer hydrogen protons, researches must find a way to develop fuel cell systems that can continue to operate in sub-zero temperatures, low humidity environments and high operating temperatures. At around 80 degrees Celsius, hydration is lost without a high-pressure hydration system.

The SOFC has a related problem with durability. Solid oxide systems have issues with material corrosion. Seal integrity is also a major concern. The cost goal for SOFC?s is less restrictive than for PEMFC systems at $400 per kilowatt, but there are no obvious means of achieving that goal due to high material costs. SOFC durability suffers after the cell repeatedly heats up to operating temperature and then cools down to room temperature.


The Department of Energy?s Technical Plan for Fuel Cells states that the air compressor technologies currently available are not suitable for vehicle use, which makes designing a hydrogen fuel delivery system problematic.


In order for PEMFC vehicles to become a viable alternative for consumers, there must be a hydrogen generation and delivery infrastructure. This infrastructure might include pipelines, truck transport, fueling stations and hydrogen generation plants. The DOE hopes that development of a marketable vehicle model will drive the development of an infrastructure to support it.

Storage and Other Considerations

Three hundred miles is a conventional driving range (the distance you can drive in a car with a full tank of gas). In order to create a comparable result with a fuel cell vehicle, researchers must overcome hydrogen storage considerations, vehicle weight and volume, cost, and safety.

While PEMFC systems have become lighter and smaller as improvements are made, they still are too large and heavy for use in standard vehicles.

There are also safety concerns related to fuel cell use. Legislators will have to create new processes for first responders to follow when they must handle an incident involving a fuel cell vehicle or generator. Engineers will have to design safe, reliable hydrogen delivery systems.

Researchers face considerable challenges. In the next section, we will explore why the United States and other nations are investing in research to overcome these obstacles.