Scientists at the NSU Physics Department Laboratory for Structures and Functional Properties of Molecular Systems and the G. K. Boreskov Institute of Catalysis SB RAS conducted a detailed structural study of the proton-exchange membrane, the main element in a fuel cell, and identified how to improve its conductivity.
Efficient fuel cells can solve the problem of conserving and transferring energy fr om a distance using chemicals but until recently a material with sufficient durability did not exist. Colleagues fr om the University of Manchester created synthetics that led to the development of a new material for the lanthanide-based membrane and the Novosibirsk scientists improved the functionability of this material.
The vision today is a future wh ere the world will be able to move away from energy based on oil and coal. Fuel cells provide a more environmentally friendly option and they have two primary components, hydrogen and oxygen. Fuel cells will also solve the problem of energy conservation. In existing batteries (for example, those in mobile phones or rechargeable batteries), the material degrades over time and their ability to hold a charge is depleted.
The focus of this work is to connect pre-prepared gas components that are stored in cylinders inside the cell. Its main part is the proton-exchange membrane, which passes only hydrogen ions formed at the cell anode. During its operation, hydrogen ions pass through the membrane and interact with oxygen to form water. The process creates an electromotive force that can be used to operate various devices. The membrane must be moisture resistant and impermeable to other substances. Scientists at Manchester University created a prototype of a suitable membrane using metal-organic frameworks. Researchers at the Novosibirsk Laboratory were able to investigate the base material using nuclear magnetic resonance. This showed the proton conductivity mechanism so they were able to figure out how to improve it. Eventually the conductivity of the final membrane increased one hundred times.
Daniil Kolokolov, Senior Researcher at the Laboratory for Structures and Functional Properties of Molecular Systems, discussed their contribution,
Our contribution is rooted in the fact that we were able to understand the proton conductivity mechanism experimentally, which showed how carrier particles appear on the membrane surface, and also suggested additional surface treatment to increase the carrier concentration, thereby improving conductivity. This is potentially a new step forward in the energy sector that will be used in modern power supplies with the help of environmentally friendly materials. Unlike commonly used portable diesel electric generators, this fuel cell has an unlimited capacity for storing electricity in the form of separate substances, it will not break down, and does not require maintenance.
The development of a proton-exchange membrane was started in the 1960s to meet the needs of space programs and for military applications, but it was too expensive for mass use. Interest in this issue was revived in the 1990s, but new membranes from cheaper and more efficient materials only started to appear in recent years. Creating efficient fuel cells will not only power spacecraft, but also provide more affordable and environmentally clean infrastructure electrification such as location systems in hard-to-reach areas and in the Far North, wh ere autonomy and independence from external conditions (wind, sun, and temperature) are essential.