New Breakthroughs In Fuel Cell Technology Announced

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The lads were lazing around the sushi bar at CleanTechnica’s zero emissions world headquarters insulated with sustainably harvested seaweed the other day and discussing Elon Musk’s pronouncement about fuel cells. “Fool cells,” he calls them. We tend to agree with the high priest of electric transportation.

fuel cell research lab
Fuel Cell and Green Energy Lab, University of Waterloo

Then Zachary piped up about the latest research from the University of Waterloo regarding fuel cells. Scientists there announced this week they have succeeded in making fuel cells that last ten times longer than the ones commercially available today. The new components have the potential to make electric cars that cost no more than conventional gasoline or diesel powered cars, or maybe even less. That made us all put down our chopsticks and pay attention.

The research was published recently in the journal Applied Energy and reported by Science Daily. “With our design approach, the cost could be comparable or even cheaper than gasoline engines,” says Xianguo Li, director of the Fuel Cell and Green Energy Lab at the University of Waterloo. “The future is very bright. This is clean energy that could boom. We have found a way to lower costs and still satisfy durability and performance expectations. We’re meeting economic targets while providing zero emissions for a transportation application.”

The first planned use for the new fuel cells is to replace internal combustion range extender engines in plug-in hybrid vehicles. Those engines cost a lot of money and add to the cost of the cars. Less expensive but long lasting fuel cells would mean less costly PHEVs.

The key to reducing the cost of the fuel cells is to engineer them to produce a constant rather than a fluctuating amount of electricity. “This is a good first step, a transition to what could be the answer to the internal combustion engine and the enormous environmental harm it does,” says Li. Here’s an excerpt from the study abstract:

In this study, fuel cell durability is enhanced significantly for a novel configuration of FC-PHEVs with three fuel cell stacks through strategic power management by making each fuel cell stack work only at a fixed operating point (i.e., constant output power) and by shortening its active time (operation) via on-off switching control. A hysteresis control strategy of power management is designed to make the active time evenly distributed over the three fuel cell stacks and to reduce the number of on-off switching.

The results indicate that the durability of the onboard fuel cells can be increased 11.8, 4.8 and 6.9 times, respectively, for an urban, highway and a combined urban-highway driving cycle. This enhanced fuel cell durability is derived from the fact that the average power demand of real-time driving cycles is only a fraction of the maximum power that FC-PHEVs could provide, and substantially increased durability can be used to reduce the over-design, hence the cost, of fuel cells.

Engines used as range extenders are designed to operate at their most efficient engine speed. It is interesting that the researchers at the University of Waterloo are applying a similar principle to the fuel cells they are developing. Looking a little further down the road, once these new fuel cells enter volume production they will be improved and become even lower in cost. That could lead to later versions replacing not only range extender engines but large battery packs entirely.

While we love our battery electric cars, especially if they are made by Tesla, there is the question of whether every car in the world needs a 70 kWh or larger battery pack in order to replace the gasoline and diesel powered cars on the road with zero emissions alternatives.

Maybe inexpensive fuel cell cars wouldn’t be such a bad thing, if the problem of sourcing hydrogen from fracked natural gas can be solved. Other scientists are hard at work on ways to make hydrogen from water using solar energy. Who knows what the future may have in store? Perhaps anything that reduces carbon emissions from transportation should be part of the mix going forward.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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