With all the talk and worry about climate change, researchers are seeking myriad alternative energy sources. Among those that researchers are eyeing are fuel cells as an environmentally friendly replacement for fossil fuels in next-generation vehicles. 

Researchers at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, have now made a breakthrough in this technology with the development of a fuel cell that they said lasts at least 10 times longer than current comparable cells.

This type of performance makes it more economically viable to mass produce fuel cells making them cost-comparable or even less expensive than using gasoline engines, said Xianguo Li, a professor of mechanical and mechatronics engineering and director of the Fuel Cell and Green Energy Lab at Waterloo, who led the research.

“This is clean energy that could boom,” he said in a press statement.

Professor Xianguo Li of the University of Waterloo with a new fuel cell he and his team designed that could make the clean-energy technology more viable for mass production. (Image source: University of Waterloo)

Making Clean Cars Possible

Fuel cells which produce electricity from the chemical reaction when hydrogen and oxygen are combined to make water, making them one of the cleanest sources of energy available.

In hybrid automobiles, fuel cells can power generators that recharge batteries while the vehicles are in operation. While fuel cells that currently exist already could replace gasoline engines, they are currently not practical for mass production because they are too expensive.

Li’s team solved this problem by designing fuel cells that are more durable than current technology using a power-management strategy to deliver a constant rather than fluctuating amount of electricity, researchers report in a paper on their work in the journal Applied Energy.

Researchers achieved this by designing each fuel cell stack to work only at a fixed operating point, or constant output power, and by shortening its active operation time via an on-off switching control, researchers wrote.

“A hysteresis control strategy of power management is designed to make the active time evenly distributed over the three fuel cell stacks and to reduce the number of on-off switching,” researchers wrote. “The results indicate that the durability of the onboard fuel cells can be increased 11.8, 4.8 and 6.9 times, respectively, for an urban, highway and a combined urban-highway driving cycle.”

Promising Technology

Key to the design is that the average power demand of real-time driving cycles is only a fraction of the maximum power that the FC-PHEVs researchers designed can provide, they wrote. This significant increase in durability can be used to reduce the current over-design, and hence the cost, of fuel cells, researchers wrote.

“We have found a way to lower costs and still satisfy durability and performance expectations,” Li said in a press statement. “We’re meeting economic targets while providing zero emissions for a transportation application.”

The team aims to introduce their fuel cells for hybrid vehicles to drive mass production and lower unit costs for the technology in general. One day they hope to see the replacement of both batteries and gas engines entirely with an affordable, safe, dependable, and clean source of electrical power, Li said

“This is a good first step, a transition to what could be the answer to the internal combustion engine and the enormous environmental harm it does,” he said in the statement.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco and New York City. In her free time she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.