June 3, 2013 23:34 by Jeff
With the technology of today it is possible to use environmentally friendly formic acid in fuel cells, and soon you may be able to use this technology to power your mobile phone or laptop. Physicist Florian Nitze of Umeå University in Sweden has written his thesis about catalysts to improve the capacity of these fuel cells so they can have greater application in consumer electronics and other areas.
Fuel cells are different from batteries in that they require a constant source of fuel and oxygen to run. The technology is already commercially available but formic acid fuel cells still suffer from low power and lifetime which makes it a challenge today for high energy consumption electronics. The effect of a catalyst is to reduce the energy loss and to increase the rate of the chemical reactions, which leads to a higher efficiency in the fuel cell. In his thesis, Nitze has developed new catalysts based on a combination of material science and nanotechnology - engineering close to the atom level.
Several of the new catalysts that Nitze has developed are based on palladium. It is a noble metal such as gold or platinum, but it is half as expensive. Formic acid can be produced from renewable sources such as wood, and is therefore an environmentally friendly alternative. "One of the major advantages over Li-ion batteries, which are dominating the battery market, is that the charging only takes seconds by simple refueling with formic acid," says Nitze. The working principle of a fuel cell: If hydrogen and oxygen (but equally valid for formic acid and oxygen) get in contact, they can burn and release a lot of energy. In this process hydrogen gives electrons to oxygen, it is oxidized, and oxygen takes electrons from hydrogen.