Aberdeen University researchers have made a “needle in a haystack” discovery that could “unlock” a fuel cell market estimated to be worth almost £800 million by 2025.
The scientist who led the study said calculating the potential value of the “major breakthrough” was “very difficult”, but that it could be worth more than $1m (£780m) to the university.
The chemists have struck upon chemical compounds that will extend the lifespan of ceramic fuel cells by lowering the temperatures at which they operate.
The fuel cells convert chemical energy into electrical energy and produce low emissions if powered by hydrogen, making them a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels.
They can be used to power cars and homes, but the high temperature of operation means they don’t last long enough and are not economic.
Lowering the working temperature is essential for long-term operation, stability, safety and cost.
The university’s scientists have spent years trying to find a new compound that would address this issue.
They finally struck it lucky with the discovery of a family of chemical compounds, collectively known as “hexagonal perovskites”, which exhibit high conductivity at lower temperatures.
Prof Abbie McLaughlin, research director at the university’s chemistry department, said commercialisation could take five to 10 years.
But the route to market could be shortened by tinkering with the compound to optimise it – and finding an industrial partner to help speed up the development process, Prof McLaughlin said.
She said: “Ceramic fuel cells are highly efficient, but the problem is they operate at really high temperatures, above 800 degrees Celsius. Because of that they have a short lifespan and use expensive components.
“For a number of years we’ve been looking for compounds that might overcome these issues in the relatively unexplored hexagonal perovskite family, but there are specific chemical features required which are hard to find in combination.
“For example, you need a chemical compound with very little electronic conductivity which is stable in both the hydrogen and oxygen environments of the fuel cell.
“What we have discovered here is a dual proton and oxide ion conductor that will operate successfully at a lower temperature – around 500C – which solves these problems. You could say that we’ve found the needle in a haystack that can unlock the full potential of this technology.”