An energy materials research group in alkaline polymer fuel cells lead by Dr John Varcoe at the University of Surrey has been awarded £292k by the EPSRC to develop new low-temperature fuel cells which could lower the cost and increase the operation times of batteries used in everyday gadgets such as mobile phones and laptops. The EPSRC award to Surrey forms part of a larger £1.4m award to four UK universities.
Currently most fuel cells use acidic polymers and therefore need platinum electrocatalysts to work. Dr. Varcoe’s research will investigate the possibility of using alkaline (hydroxide ion conducting), rather than acidic, polymers which may enable the use of metals other than prohibitively expensive platinum in their electrocatalysts.
Research in this area follows on from earlier University of Surrey research which Dr Varcoe explains,
“We recently successfully completed a previous 3 year EPSRC funded programme (grant GR/S60709/01) developing alkaline membrane fuel cells where our work showed that contrary to prior wisdom these alkaline polymers are good ionic conductors and do not suffer from performance losses due to the reaction of the hydroxide anions with carbon dioxide in the air as found with traditional non-polymer potassium hydroxide containing alkaline fuel cells. This project also showed that metals such as silver can perform as well as platinum in such systems”.
The research, which is due to be completed in March 2011, could also have environmental benefits if new power sources could be developed that are longer-lasting and less toxic than those in current use.