Fuel cell technology has gained appeal as the world has become more concerned with sustainability. New possibilities have emerged with more research. Scientists keep finding new ways to power fuel cells, even moving beyond hydrogen.
Fuel cells first appeared in 1839, but they didn’t see commercial use until the 1960s. Several decades would pass before this technology broke out of niche sectors to achieve the widespread appeal it sees today.
Here’s a look at five recent innovations for powering fuel cells that could alter the history of this technology.
1. Steam-Derived Hydrogen
Right now, most hydrogen comes from natural gas, which emits CO2, and many green hydrogen production methods are energy-intensive. New technology can use steam to split water and derive hydrogen, becoming up to 45% more energy-efficient than most green hydrogen today.
These new electrolyzers use a combination of solar power and high-temperature steam. Mirrors that reflect and intensify sunlight for electricity also heat water to produce steam, which can provide the catalyst needed to separate hydrogen from water. That way, solar farms can produce emissions-free hydrogen and renewable electricity at the same time.
2. Metal Nanoparticles
Hydrogen fuel is cheaper than gasoline, but the fuel cells that use it can be expensive. Researchers in Korea recently found a way to mitigate those costs through metal nanoparticles. These particles can drastically improve fuel cell performance, so they use fuel more efficiently, offsetting the initial costs.
Previous methods for creating these nanoparticles relied on expensive and hazardous chemical reactions. This new method uses semiconductor manufacturing techniques to produce it through physical instead of chemical processes. As a result, the fuel cells themselves are more affordable, too.
3. Biofuel Cells
One of the more innovative ways to power fuel cells doesn’t use hydrogen at all. Instead, fuel cells use a sugar cockroaches make from their food to convert into electricity. These implantable devices capitalize on roaches’ natural body processes to create power without using hydrogen, avoiding any related costs and challenges.
While each cockroach doesn’t produce much energy, roaches reproduce quickly and can withstand extreme environments. As a result, they provide an abundant, lasting source of power. This technology also works with some mushroom species, providing more natural fuel cell power sources.
4. Ethanol Fuel Cells
Some new fuel cells use ethanol instead of hydrogen. Researchers have tried to create ethanol fuel cells in the past, but have struggled to produce powerful enough reactions. New studies show that adding fluorine to the catalysts can help generate more energy from ethanol reactions.
These new fuel cells have a maximum power density of 0.57 watts per square centimeter, several times that of earlier ethanol fuel cells. They also have an operation time of more than 5,000 hours, helping reduce lifetime costs.
5. Direct Borohydride Fuel Cells
Another hydrogen alternative is direct borohydride fuel cells (DBFCs). These technologies use liquid fuel instead of hydrogen gas, eliminating storage and transportation concerns. More impressively, they can deliver double the voltage of conventional hydrogen fuel cells.
DBFCs are so efficient because they reduce the number of side reactions that fuel cells produce. As a result, they waste less energy and materials. These savings would also help them become more affordable than traditional fuel cells.
Fuel Cell History Has Just Begun
Fuel cell research is accelerating rapidly, and more innovations will emerge as this trend continues. The world is likely at the beginning of fuel cell development. There could be more opportunities to uncover with additional research and application.
Jane Marsh, Contributor
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