Perhaps the most common observation on the fuel cell industry is that cost is still the major issue. Almost any company working in the technology is looking at how they can reduce cost as much as how they can improve performance, from using thinner membranes, to better manufacturing methods to eliminating balance of plant.
In 2000, scientists at the Generics Group, in Cambridge in the UK, realised that the little-known mixed-reactant or single-chamber fuel cell, which has been a laboratory curiosity since the 1950s, could be modified to enable a step reduction in stack cost. Generics patented the concept and the resulting spin-out company, CMR Fuel Cells, is now developing direct methanol fuel cells based on this architecture, The new approach, it is claimed, could reduce DMFC stack cost by some 80% and size and weight by even more. The company also believes its approach should be applicable to solid oxide, alkaline, biological and even to hydrogen PEM fuel cells.
In a conventional fuel cell, of any type, the fuel and air are supplied to different sides of each cell. A normal PEMFC design would have a flat membrane electrode assembly with air coming to the cathode and the fuel to the anode; a solid oxide fuel cell could be similarly-shaped or formed into a tube with fuel flow inside the tube and the air outside each tube but in each case the fuel and air are separated by the electrolyte.
In the few cases where we do see fuel and air on the same side of the cell, the results are not good. For instance, methanol crossover in direct methanol fuel cells, where methanol flows through the membrane, is particularly bad for both efficiency and for performance. Likewise, damage to the electrolyte in PEM and other types of fuel cell can allow hydrogen and oxygen to mix and react directly over the catalysts or simply at high temperature.
In mixed-reactant fuel cells, selective catalysts are used that are specific to the different reactions that occur on each side of the fuel cell. This means that the cell can operate effectively in a mixed fuel and air stream. Fuel cells such as this were originally developed to extract electrical power from water that had been split thermally into hydrogen and oxygen in early nuclear reactors. Academic work is also continuing in Japan, Canada and the USA on single-chamber solid oxide fuel cells, that remarkably produce power directly from fuel air mixtures at high temperatures.
The innovation that CMR Fuel Cells brought to this was to realise that the electrolyte membrane in such a fuel cell could be made porous and the fuel and air mixture passed through each cell, instead of across the surfaces.
If this were the only feature of this \u201ccompact mixed-reactant\u201d (CMR) design, then interest might have been somewhat limited but there are also some very clear advantages. Sealing the units is less challenging, as air and fuel do not have to be
rigidly separated. And because air and fuel are premixed, there is no need to have equivalent flow-field plates on either side of the electrolyte/electrodes sandwich, cutting cost and saving space.Figure 2: The CMR design
Making the CMR idea workable does still pose some challenges, though. To remove the \u201ccrossover\u201dproblem, better, more specific catalysts are required so that fuel will only react at one electrode and air at the other. These are being developed but it is not a trivial process to design them. And an electrolyte layer also has to be designed that will allow the passage of air and fuel through them. Both of these issues are being addressed but require significant changes in materials and structure from their conventional fuel cell equivalents.
The figure on the next page shows the comparative performance of a Nafion-117 direct methanol single cell at 90C with selective RuSe/C cathode and PtRu/C anode catalysts (oxygen on cathode at ambient pressure) operated in mixed-reactant mode, versus conventional separated-reactant mode. Very similar performance was obtained. Performance tests were carried out under contract for CMR by Newcastle University.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?