How Do You Convert Chemicals To Electrical Energy?

Fuel cells are technologies that use chemical reactions of fuels with oxidants to produce electrical energy. Instead of burning fuels, fuel cells convert chemical potential energy directly into electricity through electrochemical reactions. Due to their high theoretical efficiency and low emissions, fuel cells are viewed as a key enabling technology for sustainable energy systems.

The ability to convert the chemical energy stored in fuels directly into electricity is extremely important. It allows us to utilize a wide variety of fuels, including renewable ones like biomass and hydrogen, to generate clean and efficient electrical power. This electricity can then be used to power everything from vehicles to homes and businesses.

In this article, we will provide an overview of how fuel cells work, the different types and their key characteristics, the fuels that can be used, their efficiency and applications, environmental impact, current challenges, latest advancements, and the future outlook for fuel cell technologies.

How Fuel Cells Work

Fuel cells are electrochemical devices that convert the chemical energy from a fuel into electricity through a chemical reaction. The main components of a fuel cell are:

  • Anode – The anode catalyzes the oxidation of the fuel, usually hydrogen, forming positive hydrogen ions (protons) and electrons.
  • Cathode – The cathode catalyzes the reduction of oxygen, usually from air, forming negative oxygen ions.
  • Electrolyte – The electrolyte is a substance that allows only the appropriate ions to pass between the anode and cathode.

The general working principle is:

  1. The fuel (hydrogen) is fed to the anode where a catalyst causes it to split into protons and electrons.
  2. The protons pass through the electrolyte to the cathode while the electrons go through an external circuit, generating electricity.
  3. At the cathode, the electrons combine with protons and oxygen to produce water and heat.

So in summary, fuel cells convert the chemical energy from the fuel directly into electrical energy, without involving any combustion or moving parts. The only byproducts are water, heat, and electricity.

Types of Fuel Cells

There are several major types of fuel cells that vary based on the kind of electrolyte used:

Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel Cell (PEMFC)

PEMFCs use a solid polymer electrolyte and porous carbon electrodes containing a platinum catalyst. They operate at relatively low temperatures, around 80°C. PEMFCs are best suited for transport applications as well as stationary uses like backup power for commercial buildings.

Solid Oxide Fuel Cell (SOFC)

SOFCs use a hard, non-porous ceramic compound as the electrolyte that allow oxygen ions to pass through. They operate at very high temperatures around 500 – 1,000°C. SOFCs are highly efficient at extracting potential energy from fuel, making them ideal for stationary power generation.

Phosphoric Acid Fuel Cell (PAFC)

PAFCs utilize liquid phosphoric acid as the electrolyte retained in a Teflon-bonded silicon carbide matrix. They operate at moderately high temperatures around 150–200°C. PAFCs have been used for stationary power generation and large vehicles like city buses.

Fuels Used

Fuel cells require fuel to generate electricity through chemical reactions. The most common fuels used in fuel cells include:


Hydrogen is the most common fuel used in fuel cells. It’s an ideal fuel because it is abundant, clean, and its electrochemical reaction with oxygen produces only electricity, heat and water as byproducts. Hydrogen fuel cells are highly efficient and environmentally friendly.


Methanol, also known as methyl alcohol, is a liquid organic chemical that can be used directly in fuel cells. Methanol fuel cells are attractive options for portable and small stationary applications. However, methanol is toxic and flammable, requiring careful handling.


Hydrocarbons such as natural gas, propane, and butane can also be used as fuels in fuel cells after reforming them into hydrogen gas. This involves adding water and heat to extract hydrogen from the hydrocarbons. Fuel reforming adds cost and complexity but allows the use of existing hydrocarbon fuel sources.

hydrocarbons like natural gas can be reformed into hydrogen fuel for fuel cells.


One of the main advantages of fuel cells is their higher efficiency compared to traditional combustion engines. While even the most efficient internal combustion engines are limited to thermal efficiencies of 30-45%, fuel cells can achieve efficiencies of over 60%.

This efficiency advantage of fuel cells stems from the difference in how they convert the chemical energy in fuels to electrical energy. In combustion engines, the chemical energy first gets converted to heat by burning the fuel, and then only a portion of that heat is converted to mechanical work. Significant energy is lost in the form of waste heat.

In contrast, fuel cells directly convert the chemical energy to electrical energy via electrochemical reactions, without an intermediate heat engine. This direct conversion results in much less energy wasted as heat, giving fuel cells their high efficiency.

The high efficiency of fuel cells means that more of the energy content of the fuel is utilized. This improves the fuel economy of fuel cell vehicles compared to traditional gasoline/diesel vehicles. It also reduces fuel costs for stationary fuel cell power generators.

The efficiency of fuel cells also remains relatively constant regardless of the power output. Unlike combustion engines, fuel cells do not lose efficiency at partial load, which is another advantage.


Fuel cells have a wide range of real-world applications due to their clean and efficient production of electricity.

In the transportation sector, fuel cells are being used to power vehicles including cars, buses, forklifts, scooters, submarines, and even spacecraft. Fuel cell vehicles are quiet, efficient, and emit only water vapor. Major automakers like Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai have fuel cell electric vehicles available commercially. Fuel cells are ideal for powering public transportation like buses.

Stationary fuel cell systems provide reliable backup power or serve as the primary power source for facilities like hospitals, data centers, retail stores, hotels, and telecom towers. Large multi-megawatt installations at utilities and universities generate both electricity and heat for buildings.

Portable fuel cell applications include providing power for small electronics like laptops, phones, and cameras. Military uses include soldier battery chargers and tactical generators. Fuel cells can provide backup power during grid outages for critical infrastructure.

Environmental Impact

Fuel cells can provide clean and sustainable energy with minimal emissions compared to combustion engines. The chemical reaction in a fuel cell generates electricity directly from the fuel, without any combustion taking place. This means fuel cells produce very few air pollutants like particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, or sulfur oxides that are harmful to human health.

The main byproducts from a hydrogen fuel cell are heat and water. This makes their emissions extremely clean, with just trace amounts of nitrogen oxides if the hydrogen is sourced from natural gas. Fuel cell vehicles using hydrogen emit around 55-65% less greenhouse gases compared to gasoline vehicles. There are also no toxic tailpipe emissions. Other types of fuel cells using fuels like methanol can have higher emissions, but still much lower than combustion engines.

Overall, fuel cells powered by renewable fuels like green hydrogen from electrolysis can offer carbon-neutral energy. Their high efficiency also results in less wasted energy compared to traditional methods. With continuing advances in sustainable fuel production and improving durability of fuel cells, their environmental benefits will only increase in the future.


While fuel cells offer many benefits, there are still challenges that need to be addressed before they see widespread adoption.

One of the biggest challenges is cost. Fuel cells are currently much more expensive to produce than traditional combustion engines and batteries. The platinum catalysts used in fuel cells remain expensive. Manufacturing and materials costs need to come down significantly for fuel cells to compete economically.

Storing and transporting hydrogen fuel also presents challenges. Hydrogen has very low volumetric energy density compared to fossil fuels, meaning more storage volume is needed onboard a vehicle. Developing effective hydrogen storage methods and infrastructure for production, delivery, and dispensing remains a key priority.

The lack of hydrogen infrastructure is another obstacle. An extensive network of pipelines, distribution stations, and fueling stations will need to be built to deliver hydrogen to vehicles and stationary power sites. This infrastructure does not yet exist in most places.

Durability and reliability of fuel cells over the long term must also improve. Degradation of fuel cell components like membranes and catalysts reduces performance over time. Improving robustness and lifespan will be important.

While significant progress has been made to address these challenges, more research, development and investment will be needed to realize the full potential of fuel cell technologies.

Latest Advancements

The fuel cell industry has seen major advances in recent years as research teams around the world push the boundaries of the technology. Here are some examples of the latest breakthroughs:

MIT researchers have developed a new electrolyte material that could enable solid-oxide fuel cells to operate at lower temperatures while maintaining high efficiency. This electrolyte is made of barium, zinc, cerium and other oxides that maintain high ionic conductivity even at intermediate temperatures (500-600°C). Lower temperature operation reduces material degradation and expands the range of possible applications.

Scientists at the University of Illinois at Chicago have engineered high-performance hybrid fuel cells that combine a solid oxide fuel cell with a proton-conducting polymer electrolyte membrane. This hybrid design achieves both high power density and the ability to quickly vary output to meet shifting power demands. The researchers believe it could be well-suited for vehicle and portable electronics applications.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Lab recently demonstrated a novel biofuel cell design that uses genetically engineered bacteria to break down and convert waste biomass directly into electricity through a direct electron transfer mechanism. This type of direct conversion could enable small, portable power generation from biomass sources.

Automaker General Motors has partnered with the U.S. Army to develop fuel cell powered military prototype vehicles such as the Chevrolet Colorado ZH2. Field testing of these vehicles will provide data to help accelerate commercialization of fuel cell vehicles. The ZH2 concept is designed for stealth reconnaissance missions as its quiet electric drive enables silent operation.

With continued research and development, fuel cells are poised to become more efficient, more durable, and cheaper to manufacture at scale. This should open up new commercial and consumer use cases and help fuel cells realize their potential as a clean energy technology.

Future Outlook

The future for fuel cell technology looks promising as advancements continue to be made. Here are some predictions for the improvements and wider adoption of fuel cells in the coming years:

Efficiency improvements – Researchers are working to increase efficiency and reduce costs through new materials and manufacturing processes. Fuel cells will likely see major gains in performance. Commercial viability requires efficiencies over 60%.

Cost reductions – Economies of scale from mass production can lower fuel cell costs. With more affordable fuel cells, wider commercial and consumer adoption will follow. Fuel cell electric vehicles should achieve cost parity with conventional vehicles.

Expanded applications – Fuel cells are expected to power more vehicles, data centers, warehouses, forklifts, drones and portable electronics. Micro fuel cells could provide off-grid power. Fuel cell uptake will increase for reliable backup power.

Hydrogen infrastructure – More hydrogen production and distribution infrastructure will enable greater fuel cell vehicle adoption. Green hydrogen from renewables can make fuel cells sustainable.

Improved durability – Longer lifetimes and durability will make fuel cells more commercially viable. New materials and design advances will extend operating hours.

With significant progress in research, commercialization and infrastructure, fuel cells are poised to play a major role in sustainable energy worldwide.

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