Mini fuel cells made to order

Researchers at Case Western Reserve University have developed a prototype of a miniature fuel cell with a volume of only five cubic millimetres.

Driven by the trend towards miniaturisation of electronic products, the new cell was produced using high-tech micro-fabrication techniques to print multiple layers of fuel cell components onto a substrate that will permit low-cost, high-volume production of fuel cells rather than building them by hand. The goal is to produce fuel cells in a manner similar to the way that many types of integrated circuits are currently manufactured.

Commenting on the development, Robert Savinell (director of the Ernest B. Yeager Center for Electrochemical Science) said, `the concepts used in semiconductor processing make it possible to fabricate thousands or millions of devices as easily and in the same time as it takes to fabricate one component by conventional processes. We have created inks for each of the materials needed to create the fuel cell, and discovered how to screenprint those inks onto a structure to form a functioning device.’ He then added, `this new miniature fuel cell ripens the conditions to someday create micro-systems, i.e. fuel cells coupled with electronic circuitry, micro processors, sensors, and transmitters on a single silicon chip.’

For fuel the prototype device uses hydrogen. However, an advanced version of the fuel cell, which would use methanol as a fuel to provide far greater energy storage capability, is now also under development.

Savinell’s research is funded by grants and contracts from the US Department of Defence, and he says that the military will probably be the first to get their hands on this new micro-system technology.

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