Yale engineers hope to jump-start fuel cell adoption

It’s a technology that generates electricity from common hydrogen and oxygen, producing only water as a byproduct. What’s not to love about fuel cells?

A lot, it turns out. Fuels cells right now are expensive and not very efficient, especially compared to “dirty” power sources like gasoline engines. But new research at the Yale School of Engineering & Applied Science is making a classic fuel cell design more appealing as a potential green power source.

Researchers in the lab of André D. Taylor, assistant professor of Chemical & Environmental Engineering, have developed new testing methods to optimize the efficiency of alkaline fuel cells – a technology pioneered by the United States space program in the 1960s. Recent membrane advancements have allowed newer versions of alkaline fuel cells to operate more efficiently and are less likely to stop working due to buildup from internal byproducts.

The Yale engineers have made further improvements to the most current technology in alkaline fuel cells by determining the best operating conditions to produce electricity. Their advanced electrocatalyst synthesis techniques also allow them to reduce the amount of costly platinum needed as a catalyst to spark the electricity-producing chemical reaction.

The Yale research, published in the May 15 issue of the Journal of Power Sources, outlines the innovative testing methods and calls for a new look at the potential of alkaline fuel cells. Marcelo Carmo, Gustavo Doubek and Ryan C. Sekol of Yale also participated in the research, along with Marcelo Linardi of the University of São Paulo, Brazil.

“By making these low-temperature fuel cells more efficient and cost-effective, we hope to spur more research into commercialization of this promising technology,” Taylor said.