November 07 2008 / by Garry Golden
Category: Energy Year: 2018 Rating: 1
India researchers at Pune-based National Chemical Laboratory have created a low cost fuel cell membrane that appears competitive to the current industry standard membrane- DuPont’s Nafion. Nafion (Image shown) is a fluorocarbon based membrane with tremendous performance properties that support the complex electrochemical processes of hydrogen-oxygen reactions inside fuel cells. But it is expensive!
Researchers around the world are working to reduce the costs of fluorocarbon based membranes and also develop alternative hydrocarbon based membranes that would be a fraction of the cost. Based on this story, India researchers may have developed such a low cost electrolyte used in the MEA (membrane electrode assembly) or the heart of a fuel cell.
Why is this important to the future of energy?
Fuel cells convert chemical energy into electricity and heat. They could help the world move beyond inefficient and dirty ‘combustion energy’ systems by finding applications in portable devices, distributed power generation and electric vehicles. Rather than blow up chemical bonds, we can use the high efficiency (and relatively) clean process of electrochemical energy conversion.
Unfortunately, fuel cells have been the victim of the technology Hype Cycle. They failed to meet early expectations (circa Dotcom Boom) and have been targeted by skeptics around the world. But these promising electrochemical devices are not dead yet, and we should expect to see significant steps towards commercialization in the years.
The key to commercialization is lowering the cost and improving performance of membranes. The electrolyte of a proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells (used in portable and transportation applications) generally accounts for 75% of the total unit cost. While Nafion provides thermal and mechanical stability, it is expensive.
What to watch – Nanoscale Innovations
The future of fuel cell based energy depends greatly on advances in nanostructured materials. Skeptics of fuel cells usually develop their future forecasts on assumptions based on a current day snapshot of cost and performance. But the future of materials science based on innovative uses of nanoparticles and nanotubes is certain to the change roadmap of fuel cells.