A new catalyst, developed at the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, could represent a substantial milestone on the way to cheap, durable, light and environmentally friendly fuel cells.

Currently, the best fuel cells are powered by hydrogen. The biggest obstacle to the wide use of hydrogen fuel cells is the difficulty of storing the hydrogen.

An alternative is direct formic acid fuel cells. These convert formic acid and oxygen into carbon dioxide and water to produce energy. The formic acid oxiation occurs at the anode on a catalyst layer. The reactions occur at room temperature and the formic acid is easy to store and transport. Formic acid can be easily produced in large quantities from biomass, so the fuel for the fuel cells would be very cheap.

However, for formic acid fuel cell to be stable in operation, you need an efficient and durable catalyst. Up until now, catalysts based on palladium have been used but these are expensive and decrease in activity over time. The Polish researchers say that their new catalyst is more effective than palladium after two hours of operation and does not decrease in efficiency over time.

A prototype commercial device is expected to be available within two years.