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Electrochemical Cells and Microstructures

Fuel cells continuously convert fuels such as hydrogen, natural gas or methanol electrochemically into electrical energy and heat. They can be used as battery replacements in portable electronic devices, to provide heat and electricity in households and as an energy source for electric drives.

Due to their flat design, fuel cells are usually connected in series to form entire fuel cell stacks. Since the number of cells used can be varied, fuel cell systems have good scalability. This means they can be adapted for applications with different energy requirements. Electrical efficiencies of over 60 % are also possible. The average efficiency of a coal-fired power plant is only 31 %. Although the operating principle of all fuel cells is the same, they differ greatly in the choice of materials used and in their operating temperature. For example, solid oxide fuel cells (SOFC) are operated at over 500 ºC. By contrast, polymer electrolyte fuel cells (PEFC) operate at below 100 ºC.

In the meantime, the first fuel cell applications have been introduced to the market, for example in the field of fuel cell heating appliances. However, no major commercial success has yet been achieved. It is still necessary to further reduce manufacturing costs, but also to further improve the robustness and service life of the systems. The ICP supports this development with the help of multiphysics computer models. They help to map the large number of chemical, thermal, electrical, mechanical and fluidic processes taking place in fuel cells, thus helping to identify weak points and predict the potential for improvements. In addition, the ICP also develops models for photoelectrochemical cells (PEC), in which solar energy is used to split water. Strategic partnerships exist in the field of SOFC research with Hexis AG, Winterthur in the field of PEFC research with the Paul Scherrer Institute Villigen (PSI) and in the field of PECs with EPF Lausanne.