Thomas Ruyant is a French competitive sailor, with many races and several international victories under his belt. He needs a very light, long- lasting energy source on his yacht. He relies on a type of methanol-powered fuel cell to power all his navigational electronics, and in harsh conditions.
These lighter fuel cells are produced in a laboratory in Munich, Germany. They are designed to power, over several months, small electronic devices, like for example small home appliances or gadgets for travel or leisure, and are 80 per cent lighter than conventional batteries.
Behind the invention of these lighter fuel cells is German chemical and mechanical engineer Manfred Stefener. He and his team have created a very compact and portable fuel cell battery.
The idea that Manfred Stefener had in the 1990s was basically to replace hydrogen, the traditional fuel cells power source, with methanol. Methanol is an alcohol used, for example, in antifreeze and windshield-wiper fluid. Four times denser than hydrogen, it requires less storage space and therefore reduces battery weight. Stefener’s team successfully managed to miniaturize the fuel cell structure, making it more commercially viable.
“Methanol is a liquid fuel with a very high energy density, and can be transported very easily, so it’s much easier for smaller fuel cells to use methanol instead of hydrogen to be transported, to fill in small cartridges or to provide very long run times for fuel cells,” says Stefener.
Stefener has also created yet another kind of fuel cell device powered by natural gas, destined for domestic power and heat in homes. He says this device can make large savings on our energy bills and reduce CO2 emissions by 40 percent.
“The fuel cell works like this,” he explains. “It takes normal natural gas from the grid, and produces electricity, which covers about 40 to 60 per cent of the total electricity demand of a typical European home and it covers also like the full warm water demand of these homes.”
Stefener, aged 42, is among the nominees for the European Inventor Award, organized by the European Patent Office, which is taking place in June in Copenhagen. After his studies, he decided that the use of hydrogen in big, heavy fuel cells was completely unrealistic:
“During my PHD thesis, that I started in 1997 here at the technical University of Munich, I realized that hydrogen powered cars, that everybody wanted at that time, were not ready for commercialization, because they were too expensive and the hydrogen infrastructure was not there. So my idea was to make fuel cells for smaller devices with a factor of thousand lower power.”
“How did you feel after having discovered this new technology?”
“Today you can see that methanol fuel cells, I have invented now 15 years ago, is the first commercial product in fuel cell market, and of course this is a very satisfying feeling that today people are really using products based on the invention I made many many years ago,” he smiles.
Stefener is convinced that fuel cells can spawn a range of new ideas and applications to help satisfy the ever growing energy needs of our society.