December 18 2008 / by Garry Golden
Category: Energy Year: 2018 Rating: 1
MIT Technology Review has featured a research breakthrough in platinum free fuel cells that could significantly reduce costs for a unique type of fuel cell energy conversion devices.
A Wuhan University team led by Professor Lin Zhuang has developed an Alkaline Fuel Cell (AFC) using a new hydroxyl ion electrolyte that uses low cost nickel catalyst materials to react hydrogen and oxygen to create electrical current, heat and water.
NASA has used alkaline fuel cells (AFC) in space missions since the 1960s, but these types of fuel cells are not likely to be used in automobile or portable devices. They might best be suited for onsite power generation, which is still an enormous market. AFCs use a water-based electrolye that lets postive charged molecules pass, diverting negative charges into the current. They are very efficient (up to 70%) but do have their downsides. If the team of researchers can increase the protoype's 'modest' electricity output (50 milliwatts/sq centimeter at 60 ºC) it could help bring low cost alkaline fuel cells to market.
Why is this important to the future of energy?
Understanding Fuel Cells & The Hype Cycle
Fuel cells help us move beyond converting energy soruces through dirty combustion reactions that result in carbon dioxide. Commercialization will come from advances in nanoscale materials science that lower the cost and change performance of key catalyst materials and membranes that facilitate reactions. Solid membrane fuel cells (PEMs) are evolving into applications for electric automobiles and portable devices. But there is significant opportunity for onsite power generation to reinforce the electrical grid using stationary fuel cells.
The commercialization challenges are clear: reduce cost and improve performance. Both depend on evolving materials used in catalysts and membranes (MEAs). In generatl precious metals like platinum perform well, but are costly. Low cost materials like nickel have lower performance but lower cost. The good news is that at the nanoscale we can change property perfoamance of low cost materials. So not all hope is lost!
Coming out of the Hype Cycle?
Fuel cells were overhyped in the late 1990s during the rise of the Dotcom and startups that felt that the technology was ready to change the world. The Hype was largely the result of newly wealthy 'Geeks' and tech media giants (like Wired) buying into an idea that was ahead of its time, and not the fault of fuel cell or hydrogen science itself.
By 2003 reality set in, and fuel cells fell into the Hype Cycle's 'Trough of Disillusionment. Since then, bloggers have been very skeptical of fuel cells, but materials scientists are engineers are actually making slow and steady progress.
And there is still tremendous potential in storing energy via chemical bonds of hydrogen, and converting chemical energy into electricity via fuel cells.
So stay tuned for more milestones as fuel cells climb their way out of the bottom of the Hype Cycle towards commercial applications.
Image Credit Wikimedia