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An ingenious trick improves the efficiency of direct methanol fuel cells. Will they become an alternative to traditional batteries and power units? (by Sergio Pistoi)
If you have been left high and dry by your Ipad battery and unable to recharge it, you see the problem. High tech gadgets, electronic appliances and electric cars have a well-know downside: sooner or later, you need to look for a plug - and a power grid- to keep them alive.
Fuel cells - where electricity is produced directly by the oxidation of compounds such as alcohols - hold the promise to provide portable, clean and silent sources of energy and have therefore been investigated for decades as an alternative to traditional batteries.
A team from the School of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science at the University of Manchester, UK (The research team includes Dr Stuart Holmes, Dr Craig Dawson, Mr Saravana Shanmukham) has come up with a solution to improve the efficiency of direct methanol fuel cells (DMFCs), a variety of cells where methanol is used to produce electricity.
Clare Arkwright, licensing manager at University of Manchester Intellectual Property, is working with the group to transfer this knowledge into commercial applications.
Ms. Arkwright, what are the potential uses of DMFCs?
The biggest advantage is that they can be used in the field and away from any electricity grid. One perspective is to use fuel cells in portable electronic items as an alternative to batteries. However, the efficiency of these cells is still limited, and their use has been limited to a few applications, especially in the military.
How does your technology improve the efficiency of DMFCs?
The heart of fuel cells is the so-called membrane electron assembly (MEA) a barrier that allows the passage of energy but blocks the fuel, avoiding short-circuiting. A typical problem of DMFCs is that some methanol travels across the membrane, reducing the power output. Our team have discovered that a simple modification to the conventional fabrication method for the MEA increases the power density of DMFCs by up to 60% whilst at the same time reducing methanol crossover. The improvement requires only a minor change in the manufacturing process, and therefore could be easily adopted by industry.
What are you doing to transfer this technology into practical applications ?
We aim to license the technology to the companies that produce DMFCs. We applied for a patent, and we are now engaging some industrial partners in pilot tests to prove that the technology works outside our laboratory. Pronano has helped us to understand the market landscape and identify potential companies to work with.
What is a foreseeable future for DMFCs?
The market is still relatively small, but reports indicate that there is significant potential for growth. Portable battery chargers, laptops, field power units and even vehicles are some of the fields where DMFC may be used in the future. We hope that our work will help to make this technology more competitive and widely available.
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