Fuel Cell - UPSC (Science & Technology) Notes

By Sudheer Kumar K|Updated : November 6th, 2020


Fuel Cell is covered in the UPSC GS Mains Science & Technology syllabus (Energy; Science and Technology- Developments and their Applications and Effects in Everyday Life; Indigenization of Technology and Developing New Technology)


Greater utilization of renewables in our energy mix has been Govt. of India’s policy objective to achieve decarbonisation. Hydrogen as an energy source will play a key role in transforming climate-neutral systems over the next few decades. In this article, you will be learning about Fuel Cell, advantages of the Fuel cell and initiatives taken by the government.


Fuel Cell

  • A fuel cell is an electrochemical cell which converts hydrogen fuel and air into electricity, water and heat.
  • It produces electricity through a chemical reaction but without combustion.


Working of Fuel Cell

  • The fuel cell operates like a battery but it does not require electrical recharging
  • Traditional batteries store all the chemicals inside and convert the chemicals into electricity. The battery dies, once these chemicals run out.
  • Every fuel cell has two electrodes; one is the anode and another is the cathode. The reactions that produce electricity occur at the electrodes
  • The hydrogen fuel is fed to the anode side while air enters the electrolyte at the cathode.
  • When both of these chemicals hit the electrolyte they react.
  • And due to chemical reaction, the electrons split and start moving to create an electrical current.
  • A fuel cell will generate electricity, as long as it is supplied with hydrogen and oxygen.


Why Fuel Cells?

  • Hydrogen has high energy content per unit mass, which is three times higher than gasoline. Hydrogen is being used for energy applications with suitable fuel cells. 


Advantages of fuel cell

Environmental friendly:

  • Hydrogen fuel cells emit only water.
  • It does not emit carbon dioxide or greenhouse gases and hence no air pollutants, which create smog and cause health problems at the point of operation.
  • It can decarbonise a range of sectors - intensive and long-haul transport, chemicals, and iron and steel – where the efforts to reduce emissions have been difficult so far.
  • Moreover, fuel cells are noiseless during operation as they have fewer moving parts.

Energy Efficiency:  

  • Fuel cells are more efficient than combustion engines. 
  • They can generate up to 60% more energy with the same amount of fuel.


  • Fuel cells can be of various sizes.
  • It is one of the best options for storing energy from renewables.
  • They can generate power to provide power from milliwatts to megawatts.
  • That means, they can provide power for larger systems like a utility power station and smaller applications like a laptop or computer
  • Besides, it increases flexibility in power systems.

Costs & Benefits:

  • It has the potential for being the lowest-cost option for storing large quantities of electricity over days, weeks, or even months.
  • Saves crude oil import bill of worth Rs.62, 000 crore due to this.


Key challenges

There are several key challenges in order to make renewable hydrogen a viable option. They are related to materials, including new material development, electrolytes, storage, safety, and standards, need to be addressed. The challenges of Hydrogen production for Fuel Cells include:

  • Hydrogen Manufacturing: About 95% of hydrogen is developed from fossil fuel bases like coal and biomass gasification, etc. This raises the question of how green hydrogen energy is.
  • Storage: Storage of hydrogen is another serious drawback faced today. The weight and volume of hydrogen storage systems are presently too high compared to fossil fuels. It causes huge upfront costs. Hence, there is a need for the production of materials and components that would facilitate lightweight hydrogen storage systems.
  • Safety: Hydrogen is a highly inflammable, highly diffusive and has a very low density as a gas. 
  • Standards: Many hydrogen technologies are still under development, hence need for the development of standards in production, storage, transport, and utilization of hydrogen. Issues like legal complications and insurability are yet to be factored in.

Government’s initiatives

  • National Electric Mobility Mission Plan 2020
    • The National Electric Mobility Mission Plan (NEMMP) 2020 was launched by the Government of India in 2013.
    • The Plan aims to achieve national fuel security by promoting electric and hybrid vehicles. The target is to achieve sales of 6 – 7 million in the hybrid and electric vehicles sector from 2020. 
    • The government provides fiscal and monetary incentives for promoting Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV) technologies.
    • FAME
      • Under the National Electric Mobility Mission PlanNEMMP, the GoI has launched the Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of (Hybrid &) Electric Vehicles, FAME Scheme.
      • The FAME scheme aims to provide a major push towards the early adoption of electric and hybrid technologies.
  • Established Centre for Fuel Cell Research for conducting research and developing low-cost decentralised fuel cell systems.
  • Mission Innovation (MI): It is a global initiative of 24 countries and the European Union to accelerate global clean energy innovation. India is a member of Mission Innovation and actively participating in Mission Innovation Renewable and Clean Energy Challenge.


Though there are some challenges, it is imperative for India to adopt clean hydrogen technologies including Fuel Cell, which would help meet its goal of achieving about 40 per cent cumulative electric power installed capacity from non-fossil fuel-based energy resources by 2030.

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