Fuel cells usually need hydrogen to function, or at least a compound containing hydrogen. The rule is the same for the new direct formic acid fuel cells, developed at the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences, which can use formic acid to power virtually anything from phones to cars.
The Polish research team actually discovered a new catalyst for this new type of fuel cells, much cheaper than the platinum used in normal hydrogen cells. Its operating temperature is far lower than that of classic methanol of hydrogen fuel cells.
For those who don’t know yet, fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen through a membrane to create water and electricity in the process. The biggest issue with them is, curiously, not caused by them. The problem is that you can’t transport hydrogen as easily as you would transport methanol or gasoline, but methanol is toxic and the fuel cells using it work at some 90 degrees Celsius, close the boiling point.
“Theoretical efficiency of conversion of chemical energy into electric power in the [direct formic acid] cells can reach even one hundred percent. The best present fuel cells, powered by hydrogen, reach up to 60% in real life. For comparison, the efficiency of low-compression engines is as low as 20%,” says Dr Andrzej Borodzinski from the IPC PAS.
“The catalyst developed by us has initially lower activity then the existing catalysts made of pure palladium. The difference disappears, however, already after two hours of operation. And further it is only better. Our catalyst is stable in operation, whereas the activity of a pure palladium-based catalyst decreases in time,” he adds.
Unlike the toxic methanol, formic acid occurs naturally in bees and ants and isn’t harmful for the environment. Its uses could vary from powering mobile phones, laptops, GPSes or even electric cars.
Just like any other biofuel, formic acid can be made from biomass, and thus the carbon dioxide it produces besides water would be equal to the carbon dioxide absorbed by the crop during its lifetime.