Nature-inspired design overcomes challenges in fuel cell technology

Lizard tracks in the sand

Credit: Professor Marc-Olivier Coppens

Human lungs and desert lizards have helped Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)-supported researchers advance fuel cell technology.

Polymer Electrolyte Membrane (PEM) fuel cells are devices that convert chemical energy into electric energy and are promising devices for a variety of energy-conversion technologies.

PEM fuel cells can use hydrogen, potentially produced from renewable resources, making them an attractive solution for sustainable energy in our race towards net zero. However, the broader commercialisation of PEM fuel cells is being challenged by issues such as:

  • scalability
  • efficiency
  • uniform and robust operation
  • water management.

To tackle this challenge, Professor Marc-Olivier Coppens’s team at the UCL Centre for Nature Inspired Engineering (CNIE) have created a fuel cell that draws lessons from the human lung and desert lizards. This was a collaboration with the UCL Electrochemical Innovation Laboratory (EIL).

Human lungs have a remarkably efficient architecture, which achieves:

  • uniform gas distribution
  • minimal loss of energy
  • low pressure drop
  • scale-invariant operation.

Nature-inspired approaches

Desert lizards have a special mechanism of passive water transport through their capillaries. Applying these nature-inspired approaches to the fuel cell, the electrocatalyst is optimally used. This is by homogenising transport and minimising diffusion limitations, and the fuel cell’s humidity is controlled by managing the water that is produced at the cathode.

This design delivers scalable, robust performance, which significantly reduces the requirement of costly noble metals, like platinum, and remarkably increases the power that the fuel cell can deliver.

The nature-inspired PEM fuel cell, which can be 3D printed to facilitate scalable manufacturing, has been welcomed by the scientific community and industry stakeholders.

Environmental technology

Professor Marc-Olivier Coppens at the UCL Centre for Nature Inspired Engineering (CNIE) said:

 Many of the CNIE’s industrial partners have shown interest in the fuel cell design, but also in the nature-inspired solution methodology it exemplified, thus spurring collaborations on other topics related to process intensification, energy and environmental technology as well.

The work has been supported by EPSRC in collaboration with the UK National Physical Laboratory. The team are now exploring linking a fuel cell stack to a battery for applications that require reliable, combined power and range. One such example is the UK’s first-ever PEM fuel cell and battery hybrid mobility scooter which the team designed and tested on the UCL campus.

Last updated: 16 November 2021

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