Micro Fuel Cells
CSIRO has developed breakthrough technology for small lightweight fuel cell that could revolutionise portable power sources.
31 May 2005 | Updated 6 July 2012
A CSIRO research team is developing a compact, lightweight micro fuel cell that could power a laptop computer for up to 24 hours, or a mobile phone for up to a month, before requiring a recharge.
This tiny fuel cell produces electricity by reacting hydrogen or methanol with oxygen. The reaction mimics the chemistry of combustion but runs 'cool' at just a few degrees above room temperature.
What we are doing
Dr Sukhvinder Badwal’s team is developing micro fuel cells ranging from 0.5 watts to 50 watts. They have had a hydrogen-powered prototype operating continuously for nearly 7000 hours, with no significant degradation or loss of performance. They aim to achieve a working life of at least 15 000 hours, or nearly two years of continuous operation.
The micro fuel cells provide operating and standby times six to seven times longer than lithium-ion batteries.
Dr Badwal says multinational electronics companies are racing to develop micro fuel cells as replacements for rechargeable batteries but that Australia is well positioned in the race.
The micro fuel cells provide operating and standby times six to seven times longer than standard lithium-ion batteries. They could be used to power a wide variety of existing and developing technologies, including:
portable TVs, DVD and audio devices
power packs for soldiers in the field
autonomous remote-sensing devices
small pilotless aircraft.
The cells can readily be shut down and restarted. When the compact cartridge of hydrogen or methanol runs out, another can be slotted into place to reactivate the cell within seconds.
Scaling down cells
Large fuel cells are already being developed for transport applications to power cars and buses. These are bulky devices that require hydrogen and oxygen to be pumped into them under pressure.
Developing a micro fuel cell has involved its own challenges. Pumps and plumbing are out, so the team has designed their cells with a complex network of micro-channels. These channels distribute the hydrogen or methanol fuel evenly across the polymer membrane.
The cell must be sealed, and virtually 100 per cent efficient, completely consuming each fuel charge. It will 'breathe' by absorbing oxygen directly from the atmosphere.
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