A breakthrough in fuel cells based on the use of nanotechnology could see the devices rapidly commercialised into mass-market products from mobile phones to home entertainment systems.
Italian firm Acta has developed a new type of catalyst that contains no expensive platinum and operates using the abundant metals cobalt, nickel and silver.
The device can work at low temperatures and uses cheap, safe and environmentally-friendly materials such as ethanol, rather than hydrogen or methanol, which is toxic. This, the company claims, will overcome one of the major hurdles in the development of a fuel cell market.
Ethanol can be transported, handled and distributed cheaply and safely, said Toby Woolrych, chief operations officer at Acta. The fuel cell should also last up to eight hours before re-filling, he said.
‘While there is a long-term consumer wish for a greener world and to solve the problem of greenhouse gases, the consumer wish for tomorrow is for a power supply to support increasing application demands,’ he said.
The lack of platinum also means the fuel cell can side-step two tech-nical problems that have tended to dog fuel cells — carbon monoxide waste and fuel crossover. Platinum has an affinity with carbon monoxide and over time the catalyst becomes coated with it, leading to a reduction in efficiency. Fuel cross over also leads to a reduction in efficiency.
‘The breakthrough we have come up with is a polymer called Hypermec, which enables you to have a very fine, stable distribution of base metals,’ he said. ‘This allows us to distribute metals in a stable form at a sub-nanometre size, which produces a very active catalyst, therefore platinum is not needed.’ said Woolrych.
Acta is focusing on a number of applications for the technology, in particular the mobile phone market, and has been in talks with a major operator. The company is in discussion with a home entertainment company interested in a new power source for its speakers to eliminate the need for cables.
A further advantage of the Hypermec catalyst is that it is also able to use ethanol glycol, a material that can operate at significantly higher temperatures than ethanol or methanol.
As a result, the chief scientific adviser to the Italian Home Office has expressed an interest in using the fuel cell to power a planned emergency services helmet which would operate with infra-red, GPS, night vision and a bio-monitor. In a move to break into the strong Asian market, Acta has signed a marketing and distribution agreement covering Japan, South Korea and Taiwan with Japanese firm Summit Medichem.
Acta president Paulo Bert revealed that as part of its research the company has patented a technique to dramatically simplify the existing membrane electrode assembly (MEA) process. This is achieved by coating one side of the membrane with nickel and the other with silver, before effectively inkjet printing the catalyst on top.
Bert said that while it will not give as much output as a conven-tional three-ply MEA, its 20MW output would be more than suitable for an electronic application. During the next six to 12 months, Acta will continue to work on the technology to produce cheaper one-ply MEA’s.