Making fuel cells practical and affordable will not happen overnight. It may, however, not take much longer.
With advances in nanostructured devices, lower operating temperatures, and the use of an abundant fuel source and cheaper materials, a group of researchers led by Shriram Ramanathan at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) are increasingly optimistic about the commercial viability of the technology.
Ramanathan, an expert and innovator in the development of solid-oxide fuel cells (SOFCs), says they may, in fact, soon become the go-to technology for those on the go.
Electrochemical fuel cells have long been viewed as a potential eco-friendly alternative to fossil fuels—especially as most SOFCs leave behind little more than water as waste.
The obstacles to using SOFCs to charge laptops and phones or drive the next generation of cars and trucks have remained reliability, temperature, and cost.
Fuel cells operate by converting chemical energy (from hydrogen or a hydrocarbon fuel such as methane) into an electric current. Oxygen ions travel from the cathode through the electrolyte toward the anode, where they oxidize the fuel to produce a current of electrons back toward the cathode.
That may seem simple enough in principle, but until now, SOFCs have been more suited for the laboratory rather than the office or garage. In two studies appearing in the Journal of Power Sources this month, Ramanathan’s team reported several critical advances in SOFC technology that may quicken their pace to market.