Researchers at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering have developed a membrane that allows fuel cells to operate at low humidity and theoretically at higher temperatures.
“The current gold standard membrane is a polymer that needs to be in a humid environment in order to function efficiently. If the polymer membrane dries out, its efficiency drops. We developed a ceramic membrane made of iron nanoparticles that works at much lower humidities. And because it is a ceramic, it should also tolerate higher temperatures.
“The efficiency of current membranes drops significantly at temperatures over 190 degrees Fahrenheit. However, the chemical reactions that create the electricity are more efficient at high temperatures, so it would be a big improvement for fuel cell technology to make this advance.”
Mark Wiesner, Ph.D., a Duke civil engineering professor
The membrane most commonly used today, known as Nafion, was discovered in the 1960s. As the temperature rises, the polymer becomes unstable and the membranes dehydrate, leading to a loss of performance.
In addition to its temperature and heat limitations, Nafion is also much more expensive to produce than the new membrane, Wiesner said, adding that membranes make up as much as 40 percent of the overall cost of fuel cells.
While I am not a big fan of fuel cells, especially for automotive applications, It is well to keep abreast of technological innovations, such as this one, which may make them more viable.