How Do Fuel Cell Systems Work?

Fuel cells are modern devices that can provide heat and electricity for buildings as well as electrical power for electronic devices and vehicles, such as aircraft. Similar to a battery, they convert the chemical energy of a fuel into electricity through electromechanical reactions. However, whereas a battery will run down and need to be recharged, fuel cells continually produce electricity and heat for as long as fuel is supplied. Typically, a fuel cell consists of a matching pair of electrodes (anode and cathode) that are separated by an electrolyte. The anode is the electrode at which oxidation, or loss of electrons, takes place, whereas the cathode is the electrode at which reduction, or the gain of electrons, occurs in a fuel cell. When a flow of fuel (e.g. hydrogen) and an oxidizer (typically oxygen) are delivered by the electrodes, it results in a chemical reaction that produces electricity, water, and a small amount of heat. This fuel can come in the form of hydrogen gas or be obtained from a hydrogen source such as liquid methanol (wood alcohol), which is renewable and can be transported more easily than hydrogen gas.

Aside from exhibiting high reliability, low noise, and compactness, fuel cell technology has been identified as an environmentally progressive way of generating power. With hydrogen fuel, the only byproducts are heat and water, and with methanol fuel, heat and water are still the major byproducts, along with a fraction of the carbon dioxide and none of the other pollutants produced by gas-powered engines. Overall, fuel cell technology provides a great way for producing electricity with less harm to the environment, but it is presently far too costly to replace the everyday use of gas-power in most industries. Nevertheless, fuel cells have been the primary source of electrical power on human spaceflight systems for decades and are continually being improved in their efficiency overall. Eventually, these improved fuel cells could be seen in many more areas of our lives with their use as auxiliary power equipment on commercial aircraft already in the works.

Fuel Cell Systems and Turbo-Compressors

Fuel cell systems typically require a turbo-compressor to provide an appropriate flow of pressurized air to the cell and to help cool the system. For aviation propulsion in particular, a turbo-compressor system provides a lightweight, compact solution that lends reliable airflow and cooling. Typical demonstrations and prototypes for these systems have turbo-compressors using centrifugal force to help compress the air in a confined space. In addition to including centrifugal stages in their processes, aviation turbo-compressors must be able to withstand harsh mechanical stress such as from shock and vibration. They must also be able to work in wide temperature and pressure ranges. This is because, as aircraft operating conditions change during flight, the turbo-compressor must handle a large variation in pressure ratio and flow, as well as the overall temperature of the device.


Despite the apparent advantages and array of potential applications, the commercial aviation industry has yet to shift to fuel cell technology for its power generation. This is because of its overall cost and performance in comparison with today’s combustion engines. Even so, fuel cell technology is continuing to improve and could play a central role in eventually reducing total aviation emissions to zero. As the aviation industry progresses towards more sustainable practices, it is important for aircraft owners and operators to use durable, efficient parts that will lessen the time and energy needed for maintenance and repair. If your business is in need of quality-tested, aviation grade components, you can rely on Limitless Purchasing for access to a vast inventory of high-caliber parts. As we source from only trusted global manufacturers on our Approved Vendor List (AVL), our customers are guaranteed products that are of unbeatable quality and delivered with time and cost savings. Begin procuring the parts you need today with ease when you partner with Limitless Purchasing.


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