hydrogen atoms from a chemical source, breaking them apart on a catalyst (such as platinum), and harvesting the electrons. The hydrogen ions (protons) left over from this process are separated from the fuel by an electrolyte, and when brought into contact with the atmosphere they bind to oxygen molecules and produce water. The more fuel you can bring into contact with the catalyst, the more current can be drawn from the cell. A high catalytic surface area is the key to efficiency.
To compress more power into smaller volumes, researchers have begun to build fuel cells on the fuzzy frontier of nanotechnology. Silicon etching, evaporation, and other processes borrowed from chip manufacturers have been used to create tightly packed channel arrays to guide the flow of fuel through the cell. The point is to pack a large catalytic surface area into a wafer-thin volume. This approach is not only expensive, but inherently limited by its two-dimensional nature.
A polymer-electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cell generates current by stripping
Researchers Kenneth Lux and Karien Rodriguez, at the University of Wisconson, came up with an exciting new approach to the problem. Their method not only improves the performance of nano-scale fuel cells, but completely sidesteps the need for industrial-strength technology. “Even the best electrocatalysts, on a flat surface, give only hundreds of microamps per square centimeter. What you really want is … to increase the surface area by orders of magnitude.” Lux explains to PhysOrg.com, “To do this you need a three-dimensional structure.”