Fuel cells are electrochemical devices that convert the chemical energy of reaction directly into electrical energy. In a typical fuel cell, gaseous fuel is fed continuously to the anode compartment and oxidant, such as oxygen from the air, is fed continuously to the cathode compartment. The electrochemical reactions take place at the electrodes, delivering electrical current through current collectors.
A fuel cell has many components and characteristics in common with a typical battery. However, a battery has a maximum amount of energy available that is directly related to the quantity of stored active material, whereas a fuel cell is a conversion device that chemically combines materials that are stored outside the device itself.
Compact and highly modular, fuel cells can be installed almost anywhere, including in most buildings and perhaps, someday soon, in practical automobiles. At sizes of 20 kW to about 2 MW, they offer strategic efficiency and performance advantages over conventional generation technologies like industrial gas turbines, combined cycles, and diesel generators. However, fuel cell systems can degrade over time. Read about the history of a fuel cell and its expected life.
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