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Scientists figured out a way to make fuel cells last 10 times longer

Posted May 14, 2019

Electric cars are great, but they obviously have some disadvantages. Now they can go 500+ kilometres, but conventional gasoline cars can easily double that. Not to mention that filling up a tank is so much quicker than charging an electric car. But what is a solution? Scientists think that in the future fuel cells could replace internal combustion engines.

Toyota Mirai – the most advanced fuel-cell vehicle to date. It wasn’t economically viable and you’d be lucky to see one on the streets. Image credit: Michal Setlak via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Fuel cells produce electricity from the chemical reaction when hydrogen and oxygen are combined to make water. They allow a car to make its own electricity, which can then be stored in batteries or simply used to power the engines. The only emissions that fuel cells have are water vapour. And, of course, filling up hydrogen tanks is a matter of minutes – pretty much the same amount of time needed to fill a conventional petrol tank. However, not everything is so nice.

Fuel cells are hugely expensive. Furthermore, they don’t last very long, which means that a replacement would be needed rather soon. This makes fuel cell-powered cars not economically viable. But now scientists from the University of Waterloo have created a new fuel cell that lasts at least 10 times longer than current technology.  Instead of producing fluctuating currents these fuel cells produce constant power. This allows them to be far simpler and therefore far cheaper.

Scientists say that these kind of fuel cells could replace ICO powered engines in hybrid vehicles. They are even saying that the cost could be comparable or even cheaper than gasoline engines, which would be a huge step forward. It would make mass production of fuel-cell powered vehicles economically viable. Xianguo Li, one of the scientists behind the invention, said: “We have found a way to lower costs and still satisfy durability and performance expectations. We’re meeting economic targets while providing zero emissions for a transportation application”.

Mass production would bring the cost down, maybe even to a point where fuel cell vehicles could compete in price with ICO powered or hybrid cars. Interestingly, researchers believe that fuel cell vehicles are an improvement over purely electric cars too. They are easy to fill up, but electric cars actually can be more environmentally friendly. The issue is the production of hydrogen – it requires power. Electric cars can just take that power directly. In fuel cells cars power produces hydrogen and then hydrogen powers the car – efficiency is a problem.

Also, hydrogen is not so easy to get. Infrastructure is not here yet. However, existing petrol stations could be adjusted to feature hydrogen storage units. We will have to wait and see if this will be developed any further.


Source: University of Waterloo

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