A new fuel cell membrane inspired by the cactus plant is being hailed by Australian and Korean scientists as a potential breakthrough for the fuel efficiency and performance of electric cars.
A fuel cell, like the ones used in electric vehicles, produce energy by combining gases such as hydrogen and oxygen, but in order to maintain performance, proton exchange membrane fuel cells -- or PEMFCs -- need to stay constantly hydrated.
At the moment this is achieved by placing the cells alongside a radiator, water reservoir and a humidifier.
"The downside is that when used in a vehicle, these occupy a large amount of space and consume significant power,” CSIRO researcher, Dr Aaron Thornton, who co-authored the membrane study, said.
The new membrane features a water repellent skin allowing the fuel cell to remain hydrated without the need for bulky external humidifier equipment.
"We found that the skin made the fuel cells up to four times as efficient in fuel cells in hot and dry conditions," co-author and CSIRO researcher Dr Cara Doherty told The Huffington Post Australia.
Doherty said the new membrane works in a similar way to that of a cactus plant.
"The coating on the membrane is inspired by the cactus in that its cracks close up under hot arid conditions, helping it hold the water in and then under humid conditions, the cracks open up allowing the water to rehydrate the membrane," Doherty said.
"It is self-regulating, keeping the membrane wet so that it maintains performance in the fuel cell."
Heading the research at Hayang University in Korea, Professor Young Moo Lee, said the membrane could be a breakthrough for many industries, in particular the development of electric vehicles.
"At the moment, one of the main barriers to the uptake of fuel cell electric vehicles is water management and heat management in fuel cell systems. This research addresses this hurdle, bringing us a step closer to fuel cell electric vehicles being more widely available.
“This technique could also be applied to other existing technologies that require hydrated membranes, including devices for water treatment and gas separation,” Lee said.
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