The prickly skin of the cactus is helping to make better electric car fuel cells

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A new type of membrane, inspired by the cactus, has the potential to significantly boost the performance of fuel cells for the electric vehicle industry.

The membrane was developed by scientists from Australia’s peak science body, the CSIRO, and Hanyang University in Korea.

A paper in the journal Nature says the membrane can improve the efficiency of fuel cells by a factor of four in hot conditions.

The skin works in a similar way to a cactus plant, which thrives by retaining water in harsh and arid environments, according to CSIRO researcher and co-author Dr Aaron Thornton,

“Fuel cells, like the ones used in electric vehicles, generate energy by mixing together simple gases, like hydrogen and oxygen,” says Dr Thornton.

However, the proton exchange membrane fuel cells need to stay constantly hydrated to be efficient.

Currently this is done by placing the cells alongside a radiator, water reservoir and a humidifier. The downside is that they take up a large amount of space and consume significant power.

The cactus-inspired solution offers an alternative.

A cactus plant has tiny cracks, called stomatal pores, which open at night and close during the day when the conditions are hot and arid. This helps it retain water.

The membrane works in a similar way. Water is generated by an electrochemical reaction which is then regulated through nano-cracks within the skin.

The process is described in this clip:

Professor Young Moo Lee from Hanyang University, who led the research, says that this could have major implications for many industries, including the development of electric vehicles.

“At the moment, one of the main barriers to the uptake of fuel cell electric vehicles is water management and heat management in fuel cell systems,” Professor Lee says.

“This research addresses this hurdle, bringing us a step closer to fuel cell electric vehicles being more widely available.”

The cross-continent team has been working together for more than 10 years.