Proton exchange membrane fuel cells, also known as polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cells (PEMFC), are a type of fuel cell being developed for transport applications as well as for stationary fuel cell applications and portable fuel cell applications. Their distinguishing features include lower temperature/pressure ranges (50 to 100 °C) and a special polymer electrolyte membrane. PEMFCs operate on a similar principle to their younger sister technology PEM electrolysis. They are a leading candidate to replace the aging alkaline fuel cell technology, which was used in the Space Shuttle.
PEMFCs are built out of membrane electrode assemblies (MEA) which include the electrodes, electrolyte, catalyst, and gas diffusion layers. An ink of catalyst, carbon, and electrode are sprayed or painted onto the solid electrolyte and carbon paper is hot pressed on either side to protect the inside of the cell and also act as electrodes. The pivotal part of the cell is the triple phase boundary (TPB) where the electrolyte, catalyst, and reactants mix and thus where the cell reactions actually occur. Importantly, the membrane must not be electrically conductive so the half reactions do not mix. Operating temperatures above 100 °C are desired so the water byproduct becomes steam and water management becomes less critical in cell design.