Mobility: Video

Clean power: portable fuel cells

German chemical engineer Manfred Stefener, together with Oliver Freitag and Jens Müller, created the first fuel cell for portable use, known as the direct methanol fuel cell. Stefener won the European Inventor Award 2012 in the category "Small and medium-sized enterprises".

The first fuel cell for portable use delivers efficient, reliable and clean electricity in a much more compact form than a traditional battery.
Dr. Stefener was fascinated by fuel cell technology even as an undergraduate in the 1990s. He worked with hydrogen-based micro-fuel cells at the University of Duisburg, and then began his PhD studies in 1997 at the Technical University of Munich on direct methanol fuel cells. His particular interest was to combine the two fuel cell types – so as to create small DMFCs for a range of portable applications.

Conventional batteries might provide higher power than fuel cells, but their chemical ingredients hold only a limited amount of charge whereas fuel cells can produce electricity indefinitely for as long as fresh chemicals are supplied. Dr. Stefener’s cells, for example, will make electricity for as long as pure methanol reacts with water and oxygen (air) inside the cell. The only by-products are simple water vapour and carbon dioxide – the same gases we exhale.

With longer life than batteries of equivalent weight and size, DMFCs are ideal for holiday caravans, boats, traffic sensors and remote weather stations, as well as for battlefield power demands like telecommunications and radar systems.

In addition to the scientific challenges of designing a fuel cell with the perfect electrode construction, catalyst surface and membrane materials, Manfred Stefener and his team had to overcome a regulatory hurdle: methanol is classified as a dangerous chemical, and not easily sold in liquid form like petrol or diesel. The solution was yet another invention: a special sealed cartridge for transporting, selling and storing the liquid so that it could not be a spill hazard. The cartridges are designed so that they dispense their methanol only within the closed and controlled system of the fuel cell.


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