Hackaday Prize Semifinalist: A Low Cost, DIY Fuel Cell

Electronic cars and planes are the wave of the future, or so we’re told, but if you do the math on power densities, the future looks bleak. Outside of nuclear power, you can’t beat the power density of liquid hydrocarbons, and batteries are terrible stores of energy. How then do we tap the potential of high density fuels while still being environmentally friendly? With [Lloyd]’s project for The Hackaday Prize, a low cost hydrogen fuel cell.

Traditionally, fuel cells have required expensive platinum electrodes to turn hydrogen and oxygen into steam and electricity. Recent advances in nanotechnology mean these electrodes may be able to be produced at a very low cost.

For his experiments, [Lloyd] is using sulfonated para-aramids – Kevlar cloth, really – for the proton carrier of the fuel cell. The active layer is made from asphaltenes, a waste product from tar sand extraction. Unlike platinum, the materials that go into this fuel cell are relatively inexpensive.

[Lloyd]’s fuel cell can fit in the palm of his hand, and is predicted to output 20A at 18V. That’s doesn’t include the tanks for supplying hydrogen or any of the other system ephemera, but it is an incredible amount of energy in a small package.

You can check out [Lloyd]’s video for the Hackaday Prize below.

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:


63 thoughts on “Hackaday Prize Semifinalist: A Low Cost, DIY Fuel Cell

    1. That’s theoretical limit, 0.9v and 200mA per square cm of exchange membrane. I had to go back to the drawing board, chitosan is a better proton transport mechanism as I can make it thinner. I am working out wether I should just use it by itself or if I should impregnate the para-aramid with it. As with these things there are countless dead ends, and forks in the road but I have confidence I can have it up and running in the next two weeks.

        1. The internal resistance is the reason for moving to a thinner membrane with chitosan.
          How do I measure it though? Besides a relation to output compared to theoretical, there is now easy way I know of of testing proton exchange resistance.

          I am swamped with my other project it but check in on the page in a couple weeks for an update on the chitosan membrane, it works in papers, so either my active layers are too thick/unreactive or the PEM using para-aramid weave is too restrictive. Time will tell.

          1. You probably know this already, but its possible to create “fabric” out of chitosan. Electrospinning can create very small fibers in a membrane, and it’s possible to control the fiber diameter and porosity of the membrane. Just my 2cents.

      1. Cost efficient, or time efficient? Stock efficient? We can use solar power to run water pumps to fill water towers, if we need a little boost of power at night, drop the water into hydro turbines. Power storage is all about your local means. There’s also passive hydrogen generation. Like an electrolysis setup, but waiting for the water to naturally split as it evaporates, takes ages for anything useful. What looks most promising is GMO bacteria/algae that let off ‘waste’ hydrogen/hydrocarbons as they live. Let’s hope no one evil patents their DNA so we can’t produce/buy them affordabley.

        1. Please calculate how much water you need to lift to what height to store 1 kWh of energy.

          There’s an acute demand for dispatchable energy storage in the US and EU right now, that is being handled by burning fossil fuels in an inefficient manner in peaking powerplants. This demand is on the order of 1-10 TWh

          1. There’s the famous Dinorwig power storage plant in Wales. Uses 2 lakes, one at the top of a hill, one at the bottom. At night it uses cheap excess electricity to pump water from the bottom lake to the top. At times of peak demands it does the reverse, generating power. It can go from still, to full operating speed, in 75 seconds.

            If there happen to be any big hills with lakes around them, that’s a cheap place to build power storage. Being reasonable near to a point on the grid would be good too. I bet there’s lots of places in the world could benefit from these. And they make a profit, the difference between a hellawatt of cheap night power, and expensive peak day power.

            Perhaps some smart investors, who know the business, are needed.

        2. Dax absolutely love that idea. Never thought about storing energy that way. Very insightful and you opened my mind to how energy can be stored. Amazing I have never heard of it!!!!

      2. No actually Lithium Sulfur Silicon battery, would probably be the method of choice for storing energy in the cheapest fashion possible. In the spirit of science and knowing most attempts at ‘saving the earth’ or whatever the matter often ends in failure or useless technology its best to diversify your assets.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-temperature_electrolysis 64% efficient at 850 C.

        I think you can use ultrasonication to do it more efficiently but I haven’t gotten to that point yet I also think using solar heat I can split water very cheaply but that is putting the horse before the cart to misuse a saying:) The cart is a little easier to work on right now, with my budget.

        1. Looks like the ideal way to produce hydrogen would be to use a nuclear reactor running a closed loop cooling system that only serves for part of its needs, with that running a steam turbine to produce electricity to electrolyze the heated water used for the rest of the cooling need.

          Of course the turbine running part of the cooling should be able to take over the full cooling load as needed, such as when not producing hydrogen. Designing it to be able to shift the electricity/hydrogen output ratio would be a good thing.

          With a pebble bed reactor the system should be able to be built almost maintenance free. Just swap out pebbles as they drop in heat output and keep feeding it water.

          1. Being in nondestructive testing I deal with HIC (hydrogen induced cracking) often. There are materials that are resistant to it. I know one method in carbon steels is keeping the sulfur content ultra low and the hardness below 20 hrc ( I think material book is at work).

        1. Water splitting only really works if it’s a closed system that recirculates the water.

          Think of the prospect of a hydrogen manufacturing plant: the water needs to be distilled and purified before sticking it in the cell, or the cells will instantly become poisoned and mucked up with all the solutes. That’s a massive energy expenditure that lowers the efficiency of the whole process down to… almost zero.

          That is why there are no practical electrolytic water splitting cells on the industrial scale. The most efficient ones operate by steam reforming, which happens at high temperature via a zirconium catalyst, which is basically “distilling” the water straight into hydrogen in a single step.

          It’s also why you can’t really use solar or wind power for making hydrogen in any practical way. You could operate a massive electric boiler, but since these sources are intermittent your boiler won’t operate well. It goes hot, cold, hot, cold and just ends up wasting a bunch of energy.

      1. You can make hydrogen in a variety of ways. If you really want, you can break down methane into hydrogen and carbon. But electrolysis of water is another way. Provided the energy you do that with is “clean”, you can store the energy in the hydrogen, and use it whenever you need it.

          1. Yup, using hydrogen as an energy storage / transport medium is in competition with all the other methods. Like batteries, for one. Battery science in particular has come a long way since mobile phones, and then smart phones, got popular.

            On a tangent, there’s some small island somewhere that uses Vanadium flow batteries. They’re interesting. Vanadium has, I think, 5 different binding states. The “battery” is just the reaction chamber, and new reactants are kept in tanks and pumped through as they’re used up.

  1. nah, he’s using aluminum and hydrochloric acid to make hydrogen, not electrolysis. While I don’t doubt this to be a functional, cheap fuel cell – I’d say using these raw materials kinda defeats the whole environmentally friendly point…

    1. Of course the Al + HCl solution is inefficient and produces much waste. But it is only a lab setup. Nobody would produce H2 commercially in such a setup and nobody would use it to run a fuel cell for prolonged time.
      It seems that it was just cheaper or more easily available than buying a big bottle of hydrogen.
      The experiment was NOT the generation of H2, but to improve its usage.

      1. What waste? I need AlCl3 for my Li S Si battery, I also need hydrogen to demonstrate the fuel cell. The Aluminum comes from waste cans, the HCl is an old crappy bottle I found when clearing out an old storage shed.

        Pretty sure this is about as environmentally friendly as it gets.

    2. First off, H-a-D, move your report comment button! Why on earth do you still put “Reply” in the opposite location of every other text-entry form on the internet?

      Anyway, there are other ways of producing hydrogen renewably from chemical means. I saw a proposal once that took advantage of aluminum’s reactivity in its raw form. You mill aluminum into dust in an anoxic environment, then seal it in a container. Plug that container into your car and fill it with water, and as the aluminum combines with oxygen you get bubbles of hydrogen. When the container is depleted, it’s full of aluminum oxide slurry that can be returned to the factory and reprocessed into aluminum metal. The energy to drive your car comes from the aluminum production process.

      1. I completely agree with the reply “button” comment. I always hit report comment.
        Kind of off topic but why don’t we try and contain the reaction of magnesium? This is just a joke btw. Serious note though with the current price of aluminum not likely getting any cheaper how cost effective is using it. I understand it’s magnitudes cheaper then catalysts made from platinum but oz for oz comparison which is more efficient?

        1. Something like 10% of the earth’s crust is aluminum, IIRC. Using aluminum in any way except literally consuming it for fuel has got to be better than the alternative. (In the proposal mentioned above, it’s a closed cycle that keeps all the “used” aluminum in one place for easy recycling).

        1. He is dead wrong, he is trying to spin public opinion because he is invested in batteries, a 5 billion dollar facility to be constructed soon. He is afraid of toyota taking over the EV market with their hydrogen fuel cells. He betrays his underlying insecurity by scoffing with pride.

          Water can be split very efficiently with the right process namely high temperature electrolysis. Not to mention there are always new breakthroughs in science, something he is well aware of. As soon as I finish these HAD prize projects I am looking heavily into ultrasonic/microwave assisted electrolysis.

          Then building a new american muscle car, electric of course. Ultimately if these technologies can be proven, sub orbital transportation can be realized with electric ducted fans, air arc propulsion, and in the ionosphere ionic propulsion.

          New tech is required of course, what tesla motors is doing is pretending to be a trend setter, without higher capacity batteries requiring less lithium or fuel cells, electric vehicles make zero sense.

          1. How do you propose selling an electric “muscle car” when the definition of a muscle car basically requires a loud, smoky, gasoline-scented combustion engine? :)

            I think the future is not hydrogen fuel cells, but direct-hydrocarbon cells. Liquid hydrocarbon fuels (ethanol, etc) are the ideal way to transport hydrogen at standard temperature and pressure…and we already have the infrastructure to do it. You just need a way of collecting the carbon liberated in the fuel cell, and a way of turning that back into hydrocarbons. I propose giant mats of genetically-engineered SCOBY floating in the gulf of mexico. Any takers?

          2. The definition of a muscle car is a high torque car that can launch off the line, and looks well like a muscle car.

            Muscle car is an American term used to refer to a variety of high-performance automobiles. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines muscle cars as “any of a group of American-made 2-door sports coupes with powerful engines designed for high-performance driving.”

            The torque is key and the motors will have plenty of high amperage whine. If it looks cool unlike any electric cars today(including the roadster a blatant ripoff of the elise exige) it will sell.

          3. 64% efficient at 850 degC, but totally ignoring the energy required to heat the water that much? Even if you used something like geothermal, it’d likely be better to just drive a turbine. Sorry, you’re just seeing what you want to see. You seem to do it a lot… like interpreting Musk’s scoffing as insecurity. Really? Talk about projecting.

            A very useful skill for any researcher (or person, for that matter) is to be able to overcome their own biases to interpret things in the right way.

            You’re right, new tech improves things all the time. There are scenarios where fuel cells make sense… but so far batteries seem to kick their ass in the general case. Maybe that changes at some point, maybe not.

            Anyway, good luck. It seems interesting. You sure seem to have quite the bucket list… although the buzzword ratio is so high it sounds like you’re trying a bit too hard to do something/anything cool.

    1. because this is lab scale, I am not going to go buy a bottle of hydrogen, There are about a million aluminum cans laying about the streets, or being thrown away daily.

      I also need aluminum chloride for my Li S Si battery. The easiest way to get there is HCl and Al.

      1. If you’re at all serious about this, a bottle of compressed hydrogen is an investment you’re going to have to make eventually.

        I built a phosphoric-acid fuel cell in high school thanks to some generous donations of electrode sheets from the local university. I also used aluminum (sometimes zinc) and HCl to produce the hydrogen to run it. After some experimentation it turned out that steaming hot hydrogen chloride vapors are really bad for nickel electrodes. Who knew?

  2. Just out of interest, since people are talking about electrolysis, how efficient is a rechargable battery? As in, how much of the power in do you get back out? Most secondary batteries are essentially electrolysis cells anyway.

      1. ps: this is why hippies often used to talk about using stored water as an accumalator,
        it allows a very small waterfall to power much larger loads then by itself, albiet for short periods of time compared to recharge. but thats how slow-charging a battery with maybe solar goes anyway! this way you can do it in the middle of a forest without cutting down trees.

        some tiny waterfalls can only put out a few watts,
        but with stored water you can actually run
        100W or more loads for a little while,
        depending on the amount of stored water and height of the fall.

        think powering a 200W drill for a 60 seconds worth of runtime when the only waterfall power available would barely charge a smartphone. just wait till it’s full

  3. Most of the “DIY” fuel cells use commercial platinum electrodes and PEM. Which hardly makes it DIY, if you’re simply ordering all the active parts.

    But this is something different. Exploration of new materials could really make it DIY-able, and cheaper. I like it, even if it’s not proven yet.

    I wonder if manganese would serve as a catalytic electrode. I electroplated a graphite rod in a solution of manganese dioxide and oxalic acid. That rod then served as the anode in an electrolytic cell, and ran for two months straight without any visible degradation. At which point I did something stupid, broke the rod, and wasn’t able to successfully produce another. Wish I understood chemistry better.

  4. People keep talking about putting the cart before the horse (or other similar complaints). But if you have a great horse and no cart you’re in an awful place. Right now we have mediocre hydrogen generation and mediocre storage and conversion technology. We need people to work on both. This finalist is doing good work.

  5. While I have to agree with Elon Musk that fuel cells and renewable hydrogen production simply aren’t even theoretically efficient enough for personal transport (we’ll have a hard enough time getting off fossil fuel as it is, without needing to generate twice as much for our cars as we would with batteries!).

    There are many other cases where being able to store a large tank of fuel would be worth the efficiency trade off and I think the authors work here is excellent. Great project!

    1. Ya…. OP has removed his project from Hackaday.io and removed access or deleted the videos…

      I’m going to assume it wither worked so well that he has taken it closed source and is filing patents OR it was a complete and utter failure and is trying to hide his shame :D

  6. Hello, I´m portuguese student and I have to do a final project. I choose to do a hydrogen fuel cell, I found a PEM (proton exchange membrane) but very expensive, and I’m trying to found a solution. But I can´t see the video from the diy. Thanks

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.