The Basics: How Hydrogen Fuel Cells Work


How is H2 used to power electric motors in vehicles without producing carbon emissions?

As the world seeks decarbonization, many countries and companies are turning to hydrogen fuel cells and H2 production as an alternative to greenhouse gas emitting fossil fuels.

As the technology makes headlines more regularly, many are wondering how it works.

Hydrogen fuel cells are increasingly seen as a leading solution to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As such, many wonder how this emission-free green technology works and why H2-powered motors would be considered more suitable than battery electrics for many applications.

While the Toyota Mirai has yet to prove to drivers that the H2 is the best option for passenger vehicles – where battery electrics hold a solid lead – the same cannot be said for ships, planes, buses , trains, trucks and even industry such as steel. Power, quick fill (which takes about the same time as filling a conventional tank with gasoline), and range are all in favor of the H2 in these circumstances.

How do hydrogen fuel cells work to power electric motors?

Simply put, a fuel cell generates electricity by taking advantage of the natural attraction between hydrogen (H) and oxygen (O) molecules. Pure H2 is introduced into these units which are equipped with a membrane which passes the positive H particles into a chamber containing ambient air (where O is present). There, the H is naturally attracted to the O.

On the other hand, the negative H particles are sent in a different direction causing a flow of electrons which provides the electricity which will power the motor. After the negative H has been used as energy, these particles are sent into the chamber along with the ambient air containing the O and the positive H.

H particles combine with O by natural attraction, producing H2O, otherwise known as water, which – along with heat – are the only emissions produced by this process.

Naturally, the process is more complex than that, as it involves additional components such as a platinum catalyst along the way. That said, it helps understand the basics of how hydrogen fuel cells can power an electric motor without emitting greenhouse gases or needing to hook up a battery to recharge.

Answers to questions about hydrogen

hydrogen news and how hydrogen energy worksQuestion H2 Spotlight – What do you mean by hydrogen energy? Get the information here! Countries, automakers and oil giants have focused on the opportunity presented by hydrogen energy. This is true both in its use in transport, shipping, aviation and industry, as well as in its production. Even headlines from Saudi Aramco, BP and Shell have included H2. HFN has all the answers you need on what this fuel is. Check out our Hydrogen Learning Center for more details and download our free ebook to learn how it all comes together. Sign up below to receive the newsletter so you don’t miss any of the latest news.


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