In this particular meaning, “hybrid” means that the UK-led project will combine inorganic with organic electrodes to make them more efficient and cheap, and avoid the use of platinum, nowadays used as a catalyst in most fuel cells.
The difference between the two types of platinum-free electrodes is that BFCs use enzymes to speed up the separation of electrons from their parent molecules and then transport them through the electrolyte to the other electrode, while MFCs use bacteria to do this.
“At the moment it’s a bit of black-box approach: you take the bacteria or enzymes, you incubate with the solid electrode surface and hope for the best. We’re really trying to understand what happens at this interface and trying to optimise it to improve electron conductivity,” Dr Lars Jeuken from Leeds University told The Engineer.
The EU scientists will try using biological cell membranes embedded with enzymatic proteins (to perform fuel catalysis). These are laid on the electrode in a way that they create a powerful bond with the surface. On the other hand, the UK project will use nanoparticles and nanowires to accomplish this task.
After the first phase will have finished, the UK team will apply the newly-invented electrode technology to build bio-based hydrogen fuel cells and light-harvesting fuel cells for the purposes of generating electricity.
The team got a $2.3 million grant from the European Research Council for finding better electrode interfaces. The money will also help build a new Interdisciplinary Centre for Microbial Fuel Cells (ICMFC) with Sheffield and York universities.