Today’s technology offers a possibility to use environmental friendly formic acid in a fuel cell.  So far they haven’t worked very well.  But, physicist Florian Nitze working at Umeå University in Sweden on his thesis has developed new catalysts to improve the capacity of formic acid fuel cells.

Formic acid is a naturally occurring product and is comparatively safe in low a concentration that’s even used in foods.  The HCO2H molecule is also a precursor for some fuel production processes.  Rich in hydrogen and a bit of carbon it’s a liquid in atmospheric temperatures so it would be a fine fuel product.  The formic acid molecule also comes apart or decomposes with a little heat into simple carbon dioxide and water.  That’s where the chemistry gets interesting.

Its long been known that formic acid with platinum decomposes releasing hydrogen and carbon dioxide.  That fact has kept formic acid on the list for hydrogen storage ideas.

This is where Nitze comes in, his thesis explores developments of new catalysts that very well could lead to fuel cells with the power necessary for cell phones and laptops.

Fuel cells differ from batteries in that they require a constant source of fuel and oxygen to operate instead of an electrical charging.

Carbon Fiber Palladium Catalyst Holder.  Image Credit: Florian Nitze, Umeå University. Click image for the largest view.

Carbon Fiber Palladium Catalyst Holder. Image Credit: Florian Nitze, Umeå University. Click image for the largest view.

For his thesis Nitze has developed new catalysts based on a combination of material science and nanotechnology, engineering close to the atom level with the goal to reduce the energy loss and to increase the rate of the chemical reactions, which leads to a higher efficiency in the fuel cell.

Nitze explains his approach, “Especially catalysts of palladium-nanoparticles attached to a unique helical formed carbon nanofiber proved to have a long lifetime and a very high potential to be used in formic acid fuel cells. The helical formed carbon nanofiber has a high electrical conductivity and a surface that is very easy to decorate with nanoparticles.”

Several of the new catalysts that Nitze have developed are based on palladium. It is a noble metal such as gold or platinum, but it is half as expensive as of now.

Nitze knows he’s on to something saying, “One of the major advantages over Li-ion batteries, which are dominating the battery market, is that the charging (the fuel cell) only takes seconds by simple refueling with formic acid.”

In a quick fuel cell refresher note that the most common fuel, hydrogen, matched up to oxygen (but equally valid for formic acid and oxygen) get in contact, they can react and release a lot of energy. In the process hydrogen gives electrons to oxygen as it is oxidized.  The other side is the oxygen takes electrons from the hydrogen thus being reduced.  The energy in the transfer of the electrons is what the fuel cell captures flowing the power out for use.

The most successful fuel cells separate these two reactions spatially into the two separate oxidation and reduction reactions and the electric power of the two separated reactions are connected electrically.  But not all energy can be used; some energy is needed to keep the reaction running.

Catalysts can lower this energy loss and speed up the reactions resulting in a higher efficiency of the fuel cell.  The better the catalyst the less loss and less heat a fuel cell will need.

Formic acid might sound a bit threatening, but as a portable pocket fuel it’s much less worrisome than say the butane in a pocket lighter.  Lets hope Nitze’s thesis gets a wide reading and more progress is made.  Dropping the battery for portable electronics power for a fuel cell and a few drops of liquid sounds like a fine idea indeed.


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