Researchers at Oxford University are developing the basis for a long lasting, non-toxic, low cost miniature hydrogen fuel cell that could power pocket-sized electronic devices as well as laptops and other portables. The downscaled size would be made possible by using a small cartridge of formic acid to create fuel on the go, rather than having to store bulkier quantities of hydrogen. Err…what is formic acid, anyways?
Formic Acid and Fuel Cells
Formic acid is a common organic acid, which occurs naturally in bee and ant venom. Because of its preservative properties it has a variety of industrial and agricultural uses, including fabric, rubber and leather production, and the preservation of livestock feed. Formic acid has caught the eye of researchers for its potential use in fuel cells because it is similar to methanol. It is a liquid at ordinary temperature and pressure, making it easier to store than hydrogen, which has to be stored under pressure.
Oxford’s Miniature Fuel Cell
The research is still quite some distance away from commercialization, but the basics are there. Rather than relying on stored hydrogen, Oxford’s fuel cell would manufacture hydrogen on the go. The research team has developed a catalyst made by layering palladium atoms onto nanoparticles of silver, which would convert formic acid to hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The reaction would take place at room temperature, and the gasses it creates would not contain carbon monoxide or other pollutants that could weaken the catalyst.
A Fuel Cell in Every Garage (and Pot)
If it proves viable, the new technology would join a growing list of fuel cells designed for widespread consumer acceptance, such as MIT researcher Daniel Nocera’s household fuel cell with hydrogen generated by a “solar leaf.” It’s a radical transformation in the way we power domestic devices, but it’s not so far-fetched; after all, millions of households in industrialized countries made the shift from wood and coal to gas and electricity without batting an eye.
Image: Pocket by Triplejohnny on flickr.com.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.