About Fuel Cell Research

Where are we going with fuel cells?

The Space Shuttle Orbiter has three fuel cell power plants onboard all reusable and restartable. The fuel cells are located under the payload bay area in the forward portion of the orbiter’s midfuselage.
The three fuel cells operate as independent electrical power sources, each supplying its own isolated, simultaneously operating 28-volt dc bus.
The fuel cell consists of a power section, where the chemical reaction occurs, and an accessory section that controls and monitors the power section’s performance.

The power section, where hydrogen and oxygen are transformed into electrical power, water and heat, consists of 96 cells contained in three substacks.
Manifolds run the length of these substacks and distribute hydrogen, oxygen and coolant to the cells.
The cells contain electrolyte consisting of potassium hydroxide and water, an oxygen electrode (cathode) and a hydrogen electrode (anode).
The accessory section monitors the reactant flow, removes waste heat and water from the chemical reaction and controls the temperature of the stack.

The accessory section consists of the hydrogen and oxygen flow system, the coolant loop and the electrical control unit.
Oxygen is routed to the cell’s oxygen electrode, where it reacts with the water and returning electrons to produce hydroxyl ions.
The hydroxyl ions then migrate to the hydrogen electrode, where they enter into the hydrogen reaction. Hydrogen is routed to the fuel cell’s hydrogen electrode, where it reacts with the hydroxyl ions from the electrolyte.

This electrochemical reaction produces electrons (electrical power), water and heat. The electrons are routed through the orbiter’s EPDC subsystem to perform electrical work.
The oxygen and hydrogen are reacted (consumed) in proportion to the orbiter’s electrical power demand.
Excess water vapor is removed by an internal circulating hydrogen system.
Hydrogen and water vapor from the reaction exits the cell stack, is mixed with replenishing hydrogen from the storage and distribution system, and enters a condenser, where waste heat from the hydrogen and water vapor is transferred to the fuel cell coolant system.

The resultant temperature decrease condenses some of the water vapor to water droplets. A centrifugal water separator extracts the liquid water and pressure-feeds it to potable tanks in the lower deck of the pressurized crew cabin. Water from the potable water storage tanks can be used for crew consumption and cooling the Freon-21 coolant loops.
The remaining circulating hydrogen is directed back to the fuel cell stack.
The fuel cell coolant system circulates a liquid fluorinated hydrocarbon and transfers the waste heat from the cell stack through the fuel cell heat exchanger of the fuel cell power plant to the Freon-21 coolant loop system in the midfuselage. Internal control of the circulating fluid maintains the cell stack at a normal operating temperature of approximately 200 F.

When the reactants enter the fuel cells, they flow through a preheater where they are warmed from a cryogenic temperature to 40 F or greater; a 6-micron filter; and a two-stage, integrated dual gas regulator module. The first stage of the regulator reduces the pressure of the hydrogen and oxygen to 135 to 150 psia. The second stage reduces the oxygen pressure to a range of 62 to 65 psia and maintains the hydrogen pressure at 4.5 to 6 psia differential below the oxygen pressure.

The regulated oxygen lines are connected to the accumulator, which maintains an equalized pressure between the oxygen and the fuel cell coolant.
If the oxygen’s and hydrogen’s pressure decreases, the coolant’s pressure is also decreased to prevent a large differential pressure inside the stack that could deform the cell stack structural elements.

Upon leaving the dual gas regulator module, the incoming hydrogen mixes with the hydrogen-water vapor exhaust from the fuel cell stack.
This saturated gas mixture is routed through a condenser, where the temperature of the mixture is reduced, condensing a portion of the water vapor to form liquid water droplets.

The liquid water is then separated from the hydrogen-water mixture by the hydrogen pump/water separator.
The hydrogen pump circulates the hydrogen gas back to the fuel cell stack, where some of the hydrogen is consumed in the reaction.

The remainder flows through the fuel cell stack, removing the product water vapor formed at the hydrogen electrode.
The hydrogen-water vapor mixture then combines with the regulated hydrogen from the dual gas generator module, and the loop begins again.

The oxygen from the dual gas regulator module flows directly through two ports into a closed-end manifold in the fuel cell stack, achieving optimum oxygen distribution in the cells.
All oxygen that flows into the stack is consumed, except during purge operations.

Future proof?

Fuel cells are clean, fuel efficient, and fuel flexible. Any hydrogen-rich material can serve as a potential fuel source for this developing technology. Possibilities include fossil-derived fuels, such as natural gas, petroleum distillates, liquid propane, and gasified coal, or renewable fuels, such as ethanol, methanol, or hydrogen.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) partnered with Ford Motor Company to develop full functional, zero-emission fuel-cell power-system technology for automotive applications. The purpose of this work was to demonstrate the technology in a complete laboratory propulsion system.

This fuel-cell system, which operates on direct hydrogen, should achieve weights and volumes competitive with those of internal-combustion-engine propulsion systems. It should also have the potential to meet competitive production costs.


The world’s first direct-hydrogen fuel-cell power system producing more than 50 kilowatts of electrical power without an air compressor was developed by International Fuel Cells under a DOE contract with Ford.
This system generates enough power to propel a lightweight mid-size car.
Eliminating the need for a compressor greatly simplifies the system and decreases the auxiliary power requirements, a change resulting in greater energy efficiency.
The power plant weighs 300 pounds, has a volume of eight cubic feet, and can easily fit under the hood of the car.
Achieves high fuel economy (two to three times higher than conventional engines).
Produces zero pollution.
Uses non-petroleum fuel.
Reduces U.S. dependence on imported oil.
More Needs to Be Done
Low-cost components are necessary for the system to be competitive.
Low-cost, high-volume manufacturing methods must be developed.
Lightweight, compact, and affordable hydrogen storage system technologies must be developed.