Could you someday be typing a story like this one on a laptop powered by methane-based fuel cells? That’s the interesting idea being put forth by researchers at Harvard University, who say they’ve developed tiny, low-temperature methane fuel cells. As with any other right out of the lab technology, however, this one is still a ways off from commercial development.
Electrochemical fuel cells have long been viewed as a potential eco-friendly alternative to fossil fuels, said Shriram Ramanathan at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), but the obstacles to using what are called solid-oxide fuel cells (SOFCs), have been reliability, temperature, and cost. Two new studies conducted by Ramanathan and his team showcase what they say are “several critical advances in SOFC technology that may quicken their pace to market.”
In the first study, the group is said to have demonstrated stable and functional all-ceramic thin-film SOFCs that do not contain any platinum. In thin-film SOFCs, it is said, the electrolyte is reduced to a hundredth or even a thousandth of its usual scale, using densely packed layers of special ceramic films, each just nanometers in thickness. These micro-SOFCs usually incorporate platinum electrodes, but they can be expensive and unreliable. The platinum free SOFCs reportedly developed eliminate this issue.
In the other study, which relates to methane, the team is said to have demonstrated a methane-fueled micro-SOFC operating at less than 500° Celsius – reportedly a feat rare in the field. This is said to be important because “traditional SOFCs have been operating at about 800°C, but such high temperatures are only practical for stationary power generation,” so using them to power something like a smartphone is not practical.
Getting the temperature to around between 300°C and 500°C gets the fuel cells into the so-called “sweet spot.” Hydrogen is a current fuel source used for fuel cells, but pure hydrogen, however, requires a greater amount of processing. That is where methane, an abundant and cheap natural gas, reportedly can come into play instead.
“Future research at SEAS will explore new types of catalysts for methane SOFCs, with the goal of identifying affordable, earth-abundant materials that can help lower the operating temperature even further,” said Ramanathan.
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