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Proton exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cells, also known as Polymer exchange membrane fuel cells typically operate on pure (99.999%) hydrogen fuel. The PEM fuel cell combines the hydrogen fuel with the oxygen from the atmosphere to produce Water, heat (up to 90C) and electricity.

How it Works

PEM Fuel Cell - Source:  http://www.eere.energy.gov/hydrogenandfuelcells/fuelcells/fc_types.htmlPEM Fuel cells typically utilise platinum based catalysts on the Anode to split the Hydrogen into positive ions (protons) and negative electrons. The ions pass through the membrane to the cathode to combine with oxygen to produce water. The electrons must pass round an external circuit creating a current to rejoin the H2 ion on the cathode. Chemical Equation:

Anode: 2H2 4H+ + 4e-
Cathode: O2 + 4H+ + 4e- 2H2O

Each cell produces approximately 1.1 volts, so to reach the required voltage the cells are combined to produce stacks. Each cell is divided with bipolar plates which while separating them provide a hydrogen fuel distribution channel, as well as a method of extracting the current.

PEM fuel cells are considered to have the highest energy density of all the fuel cells, and due to the nature of the reaction have the quickest start up time (less than 1 sec) so they have been favoured for applications such as vehicles, portable power and backup power applications.

The intolerance of the catalysts to impurities such as carbon monoxide has led to developments of high temperature membranes which operate at 150C +. This enables the catalysts to tolerate greater impurities in the hydrogen supply.

Image source - http://www.eere.energy.gov/hydrogenandfuelcells/fuelcells/fc_types.html

Courtesy: SGL Carbon

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