Direct Methanol Fuel Cell from JPL

Here is some news from NASA regarding developments in fuel celltechnology, dated 26-May-2011.

A team of scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., in partnership with the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, developed a Direct Methanol Fuel Cell technology for future Department of Defense and commercial applications. Recently, USC and the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, which manages JPL for NASA, awarded a license to SFC Energy, Inc., the U.S. affiliate of SFC Energy AG…This novel fuel cell technology uses liquid methanol as a fuel to produce electrical energy, and does not require any fuel processing. Pure water and carbon dioxide are the only byproducts of the fuel cell, and no pollutants are emitted. Direct Methanol Fuel Cells offer several advantages over other current fuel cell systems, especially with regard to simplicity of design and higher energy density. Current systems rely on hydrogen gas, a substance that is more difficult to transport and store.

Note that this is a methanol fuel cell. Methanol is easily available and the one big advantage they claim is that the fuel does not have to be put through costly processing and cleaning.

NASA was the first to “commercially” develop and apply fuel cells (hydrogen-oxygen proton-exchange membrane type) with help from GE and McDonnell Aircraft for the Gemini space program. NASA continues to use fuel cells for the space program.

Over the years, those (fuel cell)applications have expanded from the original defense applications to include such uses as battery chargers for consumer electronics, electric vehicles, stand-alone power systems, and uninterrupted/emergency power supplies. From 1989 to 1998, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) funded JPL and USC to develop direct methanol fuel cells for future defense applications. More information is available at:

Fuel cells have a lot of potential (pun intended) for safe, clean power_ 80% efficiency compared to about 30% for internal combustion engines_which is why there is so much drive as well as hype by promoters of fuel cells. (I had better explain the pun, because actually fuel cells have very low potentials. A typical fuel cell only produces about 0.7 V of potential. But each cell can put out a strong current in the order of several amperes depending on the size of the electrodes and fuel flow rates. Thus, fuel cells can be stacked in series-parallel configurations, just like batteries, to get the required voltage and current rating. In addition, one can use a boost converterto get higher voltages.) Someone once remarked that entry of fuel cells into the commercial market has always been predicted to be 10 years down the line since the last 50 years or so. There is always some hitch when it comes to making cheap, practical fuel cells that we can use like we use batteries today. The two main reasons hindering fuel cells becoming affordable and plentiful are

” development of advanced catalyst materials” [Requires expensive metals, e.g. platinum.]


“high-performance fuel cell membrane electrode assemblies” [Does not last long, working life in the order of months or even weeks only.]

In this article, JPL claims that they have some breakthrough in the above two devices. Let’s hope for the best.


About propulsiontech

Propulsion technologist, aerospace engineer
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