Fuel cell research could revolutionise portable electronics

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Researchers claim that a new catalyst will enable a widespread use of direct formic acid fuel cells, revolutionising the portable electronics market.

The catalyst has been developed at the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw, in a bid to address technological problems that hamper the commercialisation of fuel cells. The team says the discovery represents a 'substantial milestone' on the way to the production of cheap, durable, light and environmentally friendly fuel cells powered by formic acid. When converting chemical energy into electric power, a fuel cell's current is generated directly. This is due to fuel combustion in the presence of catalysts used on the anode and the cathode of the fuel cell. Typical conversion efficiency is currently low, with hydrogen being the best option, reaching up to 60%. As it is so difficult to store, the researchers sought an alternative solution in the shape of formic acid fuel cells, where reactions occur at room temperature, efficiency and power are high and is easy to store and transport. To remain stable in operation, it requires an efficient and stable catalyst, which, according to Dr Andrzej Borodzinski, pictured, from the IPC PAS, is now a reality. "The catalyst developed by us has initially lower activity then the existing catalysts made of pure palladium. The difference disappears, however, already after two hours of operation. And further it is only better. Our catalyst is stable in operation, whereas the activity of a pure palladium based catalyst decreases in time." The catalyst could lead to cheap fuel cells as it preserves its properties while operated in formic acid of low purity, which can be easily produced in large quantities. And formic acid produced from biomass would be a fully environment friendly fuel as the chemical reactions generate as water and carbon dioxide. Potential applications include portable electronic devices, mobile phones, laptops or GPS based devices. They could also be installed as power supply sources in vehicles. Research is currently being undertaken on the first batteries based on formic acid fuel cells and a prototype of a commercial device is expected within two years.