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Replacing Gas Engines

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Clean fuel cells could be cheap enough to replace gas engines in vehicles.

Researchers at the University of Waterloo claim that advancements in zero-emissions fuel cells could make the technology cheap enough to replace traditional gasoline engines. With the recent development of a new fuel cell capable of lasting about ten times longer than current technology, research shows that fuel cells could be economically practical, if mass-produced, to power vehicles with electricity.

“With our design approach, the cost could be comparable or even cheaper than gasoline engines,” said Xianguo Li, Director of the Fuel Cell and Green Energy Lab at Waterloo. “The future is very bright. This is clean energy that could boom.”

The initial research focused on implementing existing fuel cell technology to replace gas engines within hybrid vehicles, which would, in turn, power the generators to recharge batteries while being driven. However, that was not considered to be cost-effective.

Researchers solved that problem by creating a new design which made fuel cells more durable by delivering a constant, rather than fluctuating, amount of electricity.

That means the cells, which produce electricity from the chemical reaction when hydrogen and oxygen are combined to make water, can be far simpler and cheaper.

“We have found a way to lower costs and still satisfy durability and performance expectations,” said Li, a professor of mechanical and mechatronics engineering. “We’re meeting economic targets while providing zero emissions for a transportation application.”

Researchers hope that the introduction of fuel cells in hybrid vehicles will lead to mass production and lower unit costs, eventually replacing both batteries and gas engines to provide a more affordable, safe, dependable, clean source of electrical power.

“This is a good first step, a transition to what could be the answer to the internal combustion engine and the enormous environmental harm it does,” said Li.

Li collaborated with lead researcher Hongtao Zhang, a former post-doctoral fellow, Waterloo mathematics professor Xinzhi Liu and Jinyue Yan, an energy expert, and professor in Sweden.

Their work, Enhancing fuel cell durability for fuel cell plug-in hybrid electric vehicles through strategic power management, appears in the Journal of Applied Energy.

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