Can a magnetic nano-catalyst change the way we look at fuel cells?
Attention has shifted towards a low-carbon energy production based on renewable energy resources like the wind and the sun. But converting and storing energy efficiently while making it accessible for everyone to use is still a problem.
One solution – fuel cells – are able to convert and store energy by allowing oxygen to react well with hydrogen, giving us electricity, heat and water. But they are not robust enough for all situations. One of the issues hindering their commercialization is the need for a continuous supply of oxygen and hydrogen. In addition, the temperature needed to thermolyse (or decompose) water and produce hydrogen for fuel cell usage is quite high (~1000°C).
HELENIC-REF, a project funded by the EU Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) programme, aims to address these problems by developing fuel cells that will be able to work on their own using a magnetic catalytic film that can get the oxygen and hydrogen needed to produce energy at temperatures below 300°C.
The HELENIC-REF researchers expect their fuel cells to be ideal for societal and industrial needs. They took inspiration from a magnetic material called spinel ferrites. With an untrained eye, they look like structures made loosely out of random oxygen atoms and varying metal ions. By connecting the dots, these spinel ferrites resemble a Minecraft structure like those that can be built by players using different building blocks. Depending on the type of metal ion used and the ferrites’ overall combination, order and size, they can alter the ferrites’ physical, chemical and magnetic properties.
By creating thick catalytic films made out of spiral ferrites nanoparticles, HELENIC-REF’s fuel cells will be able to run continuously at a much lower temperature without the worry of getting constant supply of oxygen and hydrogen. And using the CO2 already present in the environment, the catalyst will reduce it to CO or hydrocarbon, both of which can be directly used for heating.
This circular approach to energy production using more manageable fuel cells should bring a cleaner and sustainable world closer to reality.
Cover image by Skye Studios on Unsplash
Research projects in this story
The project HELENIC-REF aims to establish a new and sustainable methodology for creating fuel cells fit for mass production. They will do so by synthesizing, simulating and characterizing the different possible nanopowders that can be used to create the thick catalytic films normally used in fuel cells. Afterwards, they will look at the feasibility of scaling them up through a pilot plant study.