Yale University researchers have developed a tiny fuel cell that could one day power our gadgets with a clean source of energy. The micro fuel cell is made of bulk metallic glasses (BMGs) instead of the traditional materials of silicon and stainless steel, which the researchers say are fragile, inefficient and expensive. This switch, they say, creates a fuel cell that is long-lasting and low cost.
Yale News explains:
Silicon and stainless steel are the materials typically used in micro fuel cells. But silicon is brittle and a poor electricity conductor, and stainless steel is prone to corrosion. This means they require special coatings, which drives up production costs.
Fabricating metal components on the nanoscale is complex and time-consuming also. Using bulk metallic glasses solves these problems, the researchers said.
BMGs are metal alloys with randomly arranged atoms rather than the orderly, crystalline makeup of ordinary metals. The random atomic arrangement results in a tough but elastic substance—as strong as steel, yet malleable and good at conducting electricity, and thus superior to silicon and steel for micro fuel cells.
The researchers used a process called thermoplastic processing, which was invented at the university, to form the BMGs like plastic. That process cuts fabrication costs and allows for the making of precise and complex shapes.
The micro fuel cell, which is only three cubic centimeters, was made using zirconium and platinum compounds. In tests, the researchers were able to prove that it generates electricity, but now the focus is on improving its efficiency so that one day it could power things like smartphones, tablets or remote sensors.