Cactus-Inspired Skin May Provide Boost To Electric Car Industry

A new membrane inspired by cactus skin boosts the performance of fuel cells by keeping them more efficiently hydrated. Photo by Jesse Hawley/CSIRO

CANBERRA, Australia, April 28 (UPI) — The fuel cells that power electric cars require a significant amount of water. Fuel cell membranes are hydrated with a radiator, water reservoir and a humidifier — all energy-intensive components.

Researchers in Australia are working on a solution to keep fuel cells more efficiently hydrated, and they’re drawing their inspiration from a cactus.

“A cactus plant has tiny cracks, called stomatal pores, which open at night when it is cool and humid, and close during the day when the conditions are hot and arid,” Cara Doherty, a researcher with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Australia, explained in a news release.

Doherty and her colleagues successfully designed and built a fuel cell membrane that works in much the same way. Water is generated by an electrochemical reaction, while nanocracks ensure proper hydration. When conditions are drier, the cracks remain tightly sealed; when the cracks sense humid conditions, they open up.

“This means that fuel cells can remain hydrated without the need for bulky external humidifier equipment,” Doherty said. “We also found that the skin made the fuel cells up to four times as efficient in hot and dry conditions.”

Doherty is the co-author of a new paper on the breakthrough, published this week in the journal Nature.

The study’s findings and the new membrane are expected to offer a significant performance boost to electric cars. The research has other potential applications, too.

“This technique could also be applied to other existing technologies that require hydrated membranes, including devices for water treatment and gas separation,” added lead study author Young Moo Lee, a professor at Hanyang University in South Korea.


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