During combustion, hydrocarbon fuels emit water and carbon dioxide. Really, all good fuels are rich in hydrogen, if only they didn’t have those nasty carbons attached to them. Pure hydrogen may just be the perfect fuel, as it emits nothing more than water upon combustion. While hydrogen can be burned an engine, it is finding its niche in fuel cells, combining hydrogen fuel and atmospheric oxygen into water, powering the electrical system of an electric vehicle. Fuel cells can also use hydrocarbon fuels, but there are a couple of drawbacks.
Hydrocarbon fuel cells need to be heated to function, as high as 1,200°F, which puts strain on the elements in the fuel cell. If the heating wasn’t enough to lead to premature breakdown of the fuel cell, there is also the corrosive nature of the fuel itself, which attacks fuel cell elements chemically. Under the barrage of temperature and chemical attack, hydrocarbon fuel cells don’t last nearly as long as their hydrogen counterparts.
A new portable fuel cell developed by the Advanced Manufacturing Research Institute [AMRI] of Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology runs on liquefied petroleum gas. The main component of this hydrocarbon fuel is butane, which is corrosive to fuel cells. The AMRI fuel cell gets around the corrosion and heating problems by applying a nanofilm of cerium to the fuel cell elements. The cerium functions as a catalyst to negate the corrosive properties of butane and strengthen the elements. The new elements generate electricity at a much lower temperature as well, just 750°F. Because the coated elements are more durable, they can be heated much faster, to 750°F in just two minutes.
AMRI expects that this new fuel cell will be put to use in outdoor power applications, such as portable generators or back-up power supplies. Additionally, because of its quick-heating properties and fuel compatibility, AMRI’s new fuel cell can run on any hydrocarbon fuel, which are more available and easier to transport than pure hydrogen. Finally, because it is a fuel cell, it has no carbon footprint.