U.S. Department of Energy - Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy
Fuel Cell Technologies Office – Fuel Cells
Fuel Cell Systems
The design of fuel cell systems is complex and can vary significantly depending upon fuel cell type and application. However, most fuel cell systems consist of four basic components:
Most fuel cell systems also include other components and subsystems to control fuel cell humidity, temperature, gas pressure, and wastewater.
Fuel Cell Stack
The fuel cell stack is the heart of a fuel cell power system. It generates electricity in the form of direct current (DC) from chemical reactions that take place in the fuel cell. A single fuel cell produces enough electricity for only the smallest applications. Therefore, individual fuel cells are typically combined in series into a fuel cell stack. A typical fuel cell stack may consist of hundreds of fuel cells. The amount of power produced by a fuel cell depends upon several factors, such as fuel cell type, cell size, the temperature at which it operates, and the pressure at which the gases are supplied to the cell. Learn more about the parts of a fuel cell.
The fuel processor converts fuel into a form useable by the fuel cell. If hydrogen is fed to the system, a processor may not be required, or it may be needed only to filter impurities out of the hydrogen gas.
If the system is powered by a hydrogen-rich, conventional fuel, such as methanol, gasoline, diesel, or gasified coal, a reformer is typically used to convert hydrocarbons into a gas mixture of hydrogen and carbon compounds called "reformate." In many cases, the reformate is then sent to another reactor to remove impurities, such as carbon oxides or sulfur, before it is sent to the fuel cell stack. This process prevents impurities in the gas from binding with the fuel cell catalysts. This binding process is also called "poisoning" because it reduces the efficiency and life expectancy of the fuel cell.
Some fuel cells, such as molten carbonate and solid oxide fuel cells, operate at temperatures high enough that the fuel can be reformed in the fuel cell itself. This type is called internal reforming. Fuel cells that use internal reforming still need traps to remove impurities from the unreformed fuel before it reaches the fuel cell.
Both internal and external reforming release carbon dioxide, but less than the amount emitted by internal-combustion engines, such as those used in gasoline-powered vehicles.
Current Inverters and Conditioners
Current inverters and conditioners adapt the electrical current from the fuel cell to suit the electrical needs of the application, whether it is a simple electrical motor or a complex utility power grid.
Fuel cells produce electricity in the form of direct current (DC). In a direct current circuit, electricity flows in only one direction. The electricity in your home and workplace is in the form of alternating current (AC), which flows in both directions on alternating cycles. If the fuel cell is used to power equipment using AC, the direct current will have to be converted to alternating current.
Both AC and DC power must be conditioned. Power conditioning includes controlling current flow (amperes), voltage, frequency, and other characteristics of the electrical current to meet the needs of the application. Conversion and conditioning reduce system efficiency only slightly, around 2%–6%.
Heat Recovery System
Fuel cell systems are not primarily used to generate heat. However, because significant amounts of heat are generated by some fuel cell systems—especially those that operate at high temperatures, such as solid oxide and molten carbonate systems—this excess energy can be used to produce steam or hot water or to be converted to electricity via a gas turbine or other technology. These methods increase the overall energy efficiency of the systems.