How does hydrogen fuel cell technology work?

How does hydrogen fuel cell technology work?

Did you know, the UK is the second most active country in hydrogen and fuel cell research in Europe? We’re also one of the leading hydrogen fuel cell technology developers too! But what exactly is hydrogen fuel cell technology, how does it work and how does it compare to conventional methods of power generation?

What is hydrogen fuel cell technology?

Hydrogen fuel cell technology provides zero emission power at point of use. The hydrogen used in the electrochemical reaction can be extracted from various sources including water, methanol, ammonia, or derived from natural gas. The primary distinction though is that a hydrogen fuel cell avoids emissions from the combustion of a fossil fuel, as would be the case in a conventional engine.

Renewable hydrogen gas, produced via electrolysis (green) or using carbon-capture (blue), is the optimal type of fuel for use in fuel cells as zero emissions are produced in generation and use.

There are though different types of fuel cell technologies using other fuels, such as natural gas or methanol. As such Hydrogen is considered a versatile energy carrier, according to the International Energy Agency. PEM is one of the types of hydrogen fuel cell technologies available. Others, including AFC, PAFC, MCFC and SOFC, also exist. The difference between them lying within the electrolytes used in the reaction, their operating temperatures and the type and extent of emissions generated.

History of hydrogen fuel cell technology development

Did you know, the first fuel cell was invented in 1842 by William Grove? Hydrogen fuel cell technology specifically was then developed in 1939 by Francis Bacon and was further developed by Pratt and Whitney in the 1960s, eventually being utilised by NASA for in-flight power, heat, and drinking water.

In the 1990s, a research team in Canada discovered how to increase the power density of hydrogen from 200 Watts/litre to 1500 Watts/litre, establishing hydrogen fuel cell power as a viable alternative to traditional, fossil fuel-based sources of power.

How does hydrogen fuel cell technology work?

Hydrogen fuel cell technology works via an electrochemical reaction, where stored hydrogen and oxygen from the air combine to generate electricity, heat, and water vapour.

There are two electrodes within the hydrogen fuel cell: a negative anode and a positive cathode. A reaction takes place at both of these electrodes with the help of an electrolyte and a catalyst. This reaction generates electricity.

Below is a step-by-step summary of how hydrogen fuel cell technology works:

  1. Hydrogen atoms enter at the negative anode. Oxygen is fed to the positive cathode.
  2. Hydrogen atoms are separated into protons and electrons at the anode.
  3. The protons are positively charged and they then pass through the electrode (also known as the membrane) over to the cathode. The electrons which are negatively charged and can’t pass through the membrane, so are forced through a circuit which generates electricity.
  4. The electrons and protons meet at the cathode. They then combine with oxygen to produce heat and water vapour as by-products (no greenhouse gases or pollutant emissions are released).

Top 5 advantages of hydrogen fuel cell technology

There are many benefits to utilising hydrogen fuel cell technology over traditional combustion methods of generating power. Below are some of the top advantages to the technology:

  1. Low to zero emissions. Hydrogen fuel cell technology produces only electricity, heat, and water as by-products, presenting an alternative to fossil-fuel based emissions that are released by traditional combustion engines.
  2. The great thing about hydrogen fuel cell technology is that it’s modular, and therefore scalable. Multiple hydrogen fuel cell modules can be connected together in a single system meaning they can be easily scaled to achieve the desired power output. You can see a diagram detailing
  3. High efficiency. Did you know a hydrogen fuel cell can be more than twice as efficient as an internal combustion engine? Combustion typically has an efficiency of 33-35%, whereas fuel cells can be up to 60% when it comes to generating electricity. The reason for this is because conventional engines burn fuel to create heat, which is then converted into mechanical energy, and finally into electricity. Fuel cells involve fewer steps and therefore have greater efficiency!
  4. Reliability. Hydrogen fuel cell technology is both reliable and durable. A fuel cell contains far fewer moving parts than a combustion engine, reducing the likelihood of part failure and down time as the issue is diagnosed and repaired. They’re also reliable in that they do not require recharging as a battery would; a hydrogen fuel cell can continue to operate as long as hydrogen is available.
  5. Low noise. Another benefit of fewer moving parts and lack of combustion is that hydrogen fuel cells are less noisy compared to combustion engines. They do not produce noise pollution and hydrogen powered cars are, for the most part, near-silent when operated.


The UK’s hydrogen strategy contains includes a roadmap for developing a hydrogen economy, and hydrogen fuel cell technology is an integral part of it. Intelligent Energy is a leading, independent fuel cell specialist with a mission to power the future with our outstanding hydrogen fuel cell technology and services.

If you’d like to get in contact with us to discuss your business’ requirements or to find out more, please fill out our contact form or call or email our Loughborough office. Our team is happy to help!