While fuel cells are just starting to power industrial operations and some homes, scientists are working on fuel-cell tech that can work under hotter, dryer conditions. Researchers at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering have made a new ceramic membrane out of iron nanoparticles that could allow the newly designed fuel cell to operate at higher temperatures and lower humidity than traditional fuel cells while pushing down production costs and boosting efficiency.
Fuel cells have a central membrane that separates the hydrogen fuel (or other fuel source) from the reactive agent. The membrane is key to facilitating the reaction, and therefore generating electricity, and improvements in membrane performance can greatly increase fuel-cell efficiency. Currently, many fuel cells use a membrane technology from the 1960s called Nafion that requires high humidity and tops out in efficiency at 190 degrees Fahrenheit.
Mark Wiesner, lead author of the paper, claims that the new membrane doesn’t need to be cool or moist, and also estimates that the new ceramic membrane could cost less to manufacture than the Nafion membrane. This is a big deal: The membrane alone accounts for some 40 percent of fuel cell costs, Wiesner estimates.
The new nanoparticle membrane is still undergoing experimentation, but Wiesner seems quite confident that his work is attractive to funders. “If the next series of tests proves that fuel cells with these new membranes perform well at high temperatures, we believe it might attract the type of investment needed to bring this technology to the market.”
Image courtesy of Jadoo.