Researchers at Harvard University say they are one step closer to the creation of commercially viable methane-powered fuel cells for laptops.
The research is being lead by solid-oxide fuel cell expert Shriram Ramanathan at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. The academics have been able to demonstrate a functioning thin-film solid oxide fuel cell which does not contain platinum.
The use of expensive materials like platinum has been one of the challenges of the commercial viability of the technology for products such as laptops and mobile phones. The technology also needs to account for high temperatures in order to improve reliability.
"If you use porous metal electrodes, they tend to be inherently unstable over long periods of time. They start to agglomerate and create open circuits in the fuel cells,” said Ramanathan.
The group was also able to demonstrate a methane fuel cell operating with internal temperatures less than 500 degrees. Operation at lower temperature places less demands on ceramic components while also reducing the time it takes to obtain been current delivery capability.
“Low temperature is a holy grail in this field. If you can realize high-performance solid-oxide fuel cells that operate in the 300 degrees C range, you can use them in transportation vehicles and portable electronics, and with different types of fuels,” he said.
The use of methane, an abundant and cheap natural gas, in the team's SOFC was also of note. Until recently, hydrogen has been the primary fuel for SOFCs. Pure hydrogen, however, requires a greater amount of processing.
"It's expensive to make pure hydrogen," says Ramanathan, "and that severely limits the range of applications."
As methane begins to take over as the fuel of choice, the advances in temperature, reliability, and affordability should continue to reinforce each other the Harvard researchers said.