Fuel cells are a somewhat popular topic when it comes to clean sources of electricity. A hydrogen fuel cell will generate an electric current with the only waste being water, a decidedly clean waste product. Unfortunately they are quite expensive devices and can wear out over time because the electrochemical reactions they use can eventually degrade their performance. Now researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have studied one of the effects of these reactions and their results could improve future designs and materials for fuel cells.
Within a fuel cell, electrons are not the only particle moving as oxygen ions also flow through areas where oxygen atoms use to be. These vacancies are believed to affect the performance of the fuel cell, as they affect the oxygen ion current, but vacancies are difficult to study. Normally microscopes are used to find what is there instead of what is not, but the ORNL researchers thoroughly examined the structure involved and discovered how to detect the vacancies with an electron microscope.
This is an important study for the development of fuel cells as it allows for more deliberate and directed actions, when it comes to testing new materials. Instead of just making a new material and testing it to see if it works well or not, researchers will be able to take the tools of this study and determine why one material is better than another, which is a step towards designing materials that are better than others.