Fuel cells have long been viewed as a promising power source. These devices, invented in the 1830s, generate electricity directly from chemicals, such as hydrogen and oxygen, and produce only water vapor as emissions. But most fuel cells are too expensive, inefficient, or both.
In a new approach, inspired by biology and published today (Oct. 3, 2018) in the journal Joule, a University of Wisconsin-Madison team has designed a fuel cell using cheaper materials and an organic compound that shuttles electrons and protons.
In a traditional fuel cell, the electrons and protons from hydrogen are transported from one electrode to another, where they combine with oxygen to produce water. This process converts chemical energy into electricity. To generate a meaningful amount of charge in a short enough amount of time, a catalyst is needed to accelerate the reactions.
Right now, the best catalyst on the market is platinum — but it comes with a high price tag. This makes fuel cells expensive and is one reason why there are only a few thousand vehicles running on hydrogen fuel currently on U.S. roads.
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