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Ceramic fuel cells take a step closer to unlocking clean energy

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While traditional technologies rely on combustion, fuel cell technology generates electricity through a chemical reaction.

Fuel cells continue to produce electricity while there is a consistent fuel source, and unlike batteries, do not need to be recharged.

At a glance, the Fuel Cell & Hydrogen Energy Association note the benefits for the development of fuel cell technology would be; low-to-zero emissions, high efficiency, reliability, fuel flexibility, energy security, durability, scalability, and quiet operation.

Fuel cell technology has been utilised as a power generator in commercial, industrial and residential locations – particularly in remote areas or for portable power systems. Currently, vehicle manufactures are the most active in terms of research, develop, and application of fuel cell technology.

A recently published article in National Geographic, noted that many experts believed that our everyday objects may soon be powered by fuel cell technology. While there are advances in technology the biggest drawback on fuel cells technology is that it cannot yet compete economically with more traditional energy technologies.

Hydrogen is considered the best fuel for fuel cell technology as it is the most abundant and only produces on water and heat as byproducts, but hydrogen has major challenges in terms of production, transportation, flammability and storage.

However, the recent discovery of a new family of chemical compounds by researchers at the University of Aberdeen could revolutionise fuel cell technology.

According to a press release by the university, the chemical compounds - collectively known as hexagonal perovskites - could be the key to unlocking the potential of ceramic fuel cells.

Ceramic fuel cells are highly efficient and while they can be powered by hydrogen can also use hydrocarbon fuels such as methane. The main benefit of this is that ceramic fuel cells can serve as a bridging technology – enabling the shift from hydrocarbons towards cleaner energy sources.

According to the release, the discovery of a new chemical compound - which exhibits high conductivity at lower temperatures - marks a major breakthrough. Scientists from the University of Aberdeen have been researching the potential for a new compound that might overcome issue of high temperature of operation.

Lowering the working temperature is essential for long-term operation, stability, safety and cost, as high temperatures result in a short life span of fuel cells.

The results of their research are revealed in a paper which has been published in the journal, Nature.

Professor Abbie McLaughlin, Director of Research in the University’s Department of Chemistry, led the study.

Professor McLaughlin noted that, “Ceramic fuel cells are highly efficient, but the problem is they operate at really high temperatures, above 800 °C. Because of that they have a short lifespan and use expensive components.

“For a number of years, we’ve been looking for compounds that might overcome these issues in the relatively unexplored hexagonal perovskite family, but there are specific chemical features required which are hard to find in combination. For example, you need a chemical compound with very little electronic conductivity which is stable in both the hydrogen and oxygen environments of the fuel cell.

“What we have discovered here is a dual proton and oxide ion conductor that will operate successfully at a lower temperature - around 500 °C - which solves these problems. You could say that we’ve found the needle in a haystack that can unlock the full potential of this technology.”

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