Solid-oxide fuel cells work by oxidizing fuel with oxygen pulled from the air. This oxygen is drawn in throughthe cathode side of a cell while fuel is drawn in through the anode side. The two elements react with electrolytes inside the cell to generate electricity. The reaction between the fuel and oxygen is more efficient than conventional generators and the other popular types of fuel cells that use hydrogen fuel. The new fuel cells use traditional cathode materials and zirconia electrolytes and then increase efficiency by using lithography and etching on nickel oxide to create an extremely porous anode. The Japanese researchers, led by professor Toshio Suzuki, tested three different anodes with porosity levels of 54%, 47%, and 37% and discovered the material with the highest porosity level generates power more efficiently at lower temperatures than the other options.
Higher temperatures require long warm up times and prevent usage in heat-sensitive electronics, such as cellular phones. Operating at higher temperatures also increases wear, decreasing operating times. 600 degrees is still too hot for many potential uses for fuel cells, but industrial uses are well within the realm of possibility with the current temperature range supported. With current designs, power output decreases sharply at lower temperatures, making them ineffective power sources, but researchers hope to further decrease the effective operating temperature of the fuel cells. If successful, solid oxide fuel cells could be adopted for use in laptop computers and cell phones, greatly increasing their battery life.
TFOT has previously reported on a variety of other fuel cells including the world’s smallest fuel cell measuring only about 3 x 3 x 1 millimeters, a Sony hybrid fuel cell combining a methanol fuel cell with a lithium ion battery, and a new method for increasing the output of methanol based fuel cells by as much as 50 percent.
Read a report on the early stages of Suzuki’s fuel cell research in this translated press release from the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology.