« Return to AACT homepage

AACT Member-Only Content

You have to be an AACT member to access this content, but good news: anyone can join!

Need Help?

How Fuel Cells Work Mark as Favorite (6 Favorites)

LESSON PLAN in Reduction, Redox Reaction, Galvanic Cells, Oxidation, Half Reactions, Cathode, Anode, Electron Transfer, Electrons, Chemistry of Cars. Last updated February 14, 2024.


In this lesson students will investigate how fuel cells provide energy in modern cars. Students will have the opportunity to explore redox reactions, through both an online animation and a simulation in order to understand the potential of a fuel cell.

Grade Level

High school

NGSS Alignment

This lesson will help prepare your students to meet the performance expectations in the following standards:

  • HS-PS1-2: Construct and revise an explanation for the outcome of a simple chemical reaction based on the outermost electron states of atoms, trends in the periodic table, and knowledge of the patterns of chemical properties.
  • HS-ETS1-3: Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on priorities criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts.
  • Scientific and Engineering Practices:
    • Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking
    • Engaging in Argument from Evidence
    • Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

AP Chemistry Curriculum Framework

This lesson plan supports the following units, topics, and learning objectives:

  • Unit 4: Chemical Reactions
    • Topic 4.7: Types of Reactions
      • TRA-2.A: Identify a reaction as acid-base, oxidation-reduction, or precipitation.
    • Topic 4.9: Oxidation-Reduction (Redox) Reactions
      • TRA-2.C: Represent a balanced redox reaction equation using half-reactions.
  • Unit 9: Applications of Thermodynamics
    • Topic 9.7: Galvanic (Voltaic) and Electrolytic Cells
      • ENE-6.A: Explain the relationship between the physical components of an electrochemical cell and the overall operational principles of the cell.


By the end of this lesson, students should be able to

  • Identify the major components of a Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) Fuel Cell
  • Describe how a Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cell works
  • Write half-reactions for the oxidation and reduction reactions that occur in a Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cell

Chemistry Topics

This lesson supports students’ understanding of

  • Electrochemistry
  • Redox Reactions
  • Galvanic Cells
  • Oxidation
  • Reduction
  • Half-Reactions
  • Fuel Cell Technology


Teacher Preparation: 15 minutes

Lesson: 90 minutes



  • No specific safety precautions need to be observed for this activity.

Safety for Optional Fuel Cell Model Car Lab:

  • Always wear safety goggles when handling chemicals in the lab.
  • Students should wash their hands thoroughly before leaving the lab.
  • When students complete the lab, instruct them how to clean up their materials and dispose of any chemicals.
  • Students should wear proper safety gear during chemistry demonstrations. Safety goggles and lab apron are required.

Teacher Notes

  • This resource could be used as a post-AP Chemistry exam activity.
  • Engage: This activity can be used in the electrochemistry unit after watching and discussing "Pump" a film on the history of the internal combustion engine and the challenges of reducing CO2 emissions. The film can be streamed on Netflix. This frames the activity in a way that has kids naturally ready to hear about alternative fuel vehicles and the challenges of global climate change. Alternative options for engaging students can replace this movie such as presenting students with data showing the need for alternative fuel vehicles to replace traditional fossil fuel vehicles. This could include climate change data or information about fossil fuel reserves.
  • Explore: The activity starts with a review of the basics of oxidation and reduction reactions (simulation) and takes them through an exploration of how fuel cells work on a chemical level, and then into an exploration of the advantages and disadvantages of fuel cell vehicles. Students should follow the activity and explore several different websites and graphics to develop their knowledge of how fuel cells work.
  • Explain: Students could present their findings to each other about how fuel cells work or the pros/cons of fuel cell vehicles, or the teacher could lead a discussion. It might also be helpful to discuss how fuel cells are similar/different from voltaic cells (batteries). Teacher could explain how the Proton Exchange Membrane fuel cell works or have students explain it using a blank diagram or other medium. The explanation should include the oxidation at the anode, the passage of the protons through the membrane, the flow of electrons around the device, and the reduction of oxygen to water at the cathode.
  • Elaborate: Teacher could extend/elaborate on this topic by discussing other applications of fuel cells, such as ethanol or methanol fuel cell vehicles, or ethanol fuel cells used in alcohol detection devices (breathalyzers or Continuous Alcohol Monitoring bracelets) to deter drunk driving offenders. The fuel cells in these devices work in a very similar fashion but use methanol or ethanol as the fuel. If budget and time permit, it would be great if students could build and operate a fuel cell model car. Kits are available starting at less than $100 and The Fuel Cell Store provides worksheets and lesson plans as well for teacher and student. They’re very good and can be approached from RedOx or Energy Conservation and Transformation context. They even include NGSS standards in the teacher guides. Follow the link below for the kit and lesson plans/activities.

    Hydrogen Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) Fuel Cell Model Car Kit

  • Evaluate: Students will be evaluated on the conclusion section of the activity by answering the post-lab questions. Follow-up evaluation is at the teacher’s discretion.

For the Student

Download all documents for this lab, including the Teacher Guide, from the "Downloads box" at the top of the page.


Greenbowe, Tom. 2005. Iowa State University. Chemistry Experiment Simulations. Accessed 5/8/16 http://group.chem.iastate.edu/Greenbowe/sections/projectfolder/animationsindex.htm

Helston, Charlotte. Energy Currencies. Accessed 5/8/16 http://www.energybc.ca/profiles/m.currencies.html

Horizon Educational Group. Fuel Cell Car Science Kit. (Teacher Guide) Accessed 6/1/16 from http://fuelcellstore.com/downloads/horizon/intelligent-fuel-cell-car-hs-chemistry-reactions-teachers-guide.pdf

Horizon Educational Group. Fuel Cell Car Science Kit. (Student Sheets) Accessed 6/1/16 from http://fuelcellstore.com/downloads/horizon/intelligent-fuel-cell-car-hs-chemistry-reactions-student-worksheets.pdf

Thomas, Trevor E. 2002. Bluffton University. Accessed 5/8/16 http://www.bluffton.edu/courses/TLC/MontelA/Montel/Alternative_Energy_Website/Fuel_Cell.htm