Scientists make fuel cells last longer with super stretchy material

Scientists have successfully engineered a fatigue-resistant electrolyte membrane that exhibits resistance to cracking and significantly extends the lifespan of fuel cells. Credit: Oakridgelabnews.

Have you ever wondered how we can use water to power cars and not just gasoline?

Well, scientists have been working on this cool technology called hydrogen fuel cells that can do just that!

But there’s been a big problem: these fuel cells break down too quickly, making it hard to use them for a long time.

Now, a group of smart scientists from Incheon National University and Harvard University have found a way to fix this issue, making these fuel cells much stronger and longer-lasting.

Fuel cells are like the heart of a water-powered car, turning hydrogen into electricity that makes the car go.

Inside these fuel cells, there’s a special part called a polymer electrolyte membrane. Think of it as a super-thin wall that helps make electricity while keeping things that could mess up the process, like electrons or oxygen, out of the way.

But when you drive, you speed up, slow down, and stop, right? Every time this happens, the fuel cell gets a little workout, producing more or less water.

This exercise makes the membrane stretch and squish, and over time, it starts to get tiny cracks. These cracks are bad news because they let hydrogen sneak through places it shouldn’t, making the fuel cell not work as well as it should.

People have tried different ways to stop these cracks, like adding special defenders called radical scavengers or using different materials, but nothing really stopped the cracks for good.

Enter the superheroes of this story: Associate Professor Sang Moon Kim and Professor Zhigang Suo. They came up with a brilliant idea to mix in a stretchy material, kind of like the rubber in sneakers, with the usual stuff in the membrane.

This new mix includes something called Nafion, which is great at moving tiny parts needed for electricity, and another ingredient called perfluoropolyether (PFPE), which makes the membrane super stretchy and tough.

They found the perfect mix that still does a great job making electricity but also can stretch and bounce back without getting hurt.

This special mix made the membrane 175% stronger against stretching and squishing and made the fuel cells last 1.7 times longer than usual. That’s like turning a 2-year phone warranty into a 3.4-year warranty just by changing the screen protector!

This breakthrough means not only can cars powered by water last longer, but this idea could also help in lots of other areas, like drones that can fly longer, backup power that’s more reliable, and even super-cool tech like artificial muscles.

The scientists are super excited because this stretchy material trick can be used in many other ways, making things like filters for clean water, parts for batteries, and other cool tech last much longer.

This discovery is a big deal because it means we can have cleaner energy and cooler gadgets that don’t break down as quickly, making our future a little brighter and much more exciting.