A team of UCLA, Caltech and Ford Motor Company researchers have improved fuel cell technology to exceed the US Department of Energy’s targets in efficiency, stability and power.
Described as a “breakthrough”, the development may enable a new approach to renewable energy, using solar energy to convert water to hydrogen during the day and hydrogen back to water at night while providing electrical power.
Project researchers have said the advance in performance could help the inexpensive and practical generation of zero emissions energy technology to power vehicles, emitting only water.
To enhance the performance of proton-exchange membrane fuel cell (PEMFC) technology, the group, led by Yu Huang, a Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, accelerated the chemical reaction of the fuel cell.
The researchers also found a way to quickly expel excess water from the reaction site.
According to the study’s first author, Zipeng Zhao, the key was shaping the nanoscale details of the carbon-support surface to achieve the perfect ratio of the oxygen inflow to match the outflow of water byproduct to maximise the reaction rate.
Commenting on the group’s development, Huang, said, “Atomically speaking, this is sort of like designing freeway on-ramps and off-ramps for the ideal flow of traffic.”
“For the ideal fuel cell, we need our incoming traffic of hydrogen and oxygen to merge, and then following their reaction to produce electricity, we need to push the water out as fast as we can. We accomplished this by building upon our previous work and focusing on the overall microenvironment where the reaction takes place.”
“The result is outstanding at an efficiency level where industry can now start to explore adopting this technology.”