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Fuel cell technology can be made much more efficient thanks to immersion in caffeine, much like myself and the rest of the planet

 A coffee cup on a "Mr Coffee" USB mug warmer.
A coffee cup on a "Mr Coffee" USB mug warmer.

Fuel cells are one of those technological developments, a bit like nuclear fusion, that occasionally show promise but always seem at least a few major steps away from becoming a reality in day-to-day life. However, Japanese researchers seem to have made some major developments in the efficiency of the tech, thanks to that wonderful, magical substance, caffeine.

Researchers from the Graduate School of Engineering at Chiba University in Japan have published a study in the scientific journal Communications Chemistry, detailing their discovery that the addition of caffeine to platinum electrodes in fuel cells lessens the obstruction of efficient oxygen reaction.

Currently the presence of water affects the performance of fuel cells by reacting with platinum catalysts, meaning that fuel cells need to make use of a substantial amount of platinum, a particularly valuable substance to maintain an effective reaction.

By immersing the platinum electrodes in an electrolyte solution containing caffeine, the researchers noted that there was a marked improvement in ORR activity, or oxygen reduction reaction. This was attributed to the caffeine absorbing onto the electrodes surface, preventing hydrogen absorption and the formation of platinum oxide. While the caffeine's effect was substantial, it relied on specific orientations of atoms on the platinum surface to garner the full benefits.

The upshot of all this is that by introducing caffeine into the mix, the researchers hope that eventually less platinum would be required in fuel cell manufacture to achieve similar results to current units. Platinum is a very pricey substance, with 1 kg of the element currently estimated to cost around $29,830.

If this research continues to bear fruit, it could mean cheaper to manufacture and more efficient fuel cells, boosting the viability of the mass-usage of the tech as a long term energy solution.

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Fuel cells can generate power as long as fuel is supplied, which gives them a distinct advantage over rechargeable batteries with limited lifespans. Okay, you're unlikely to get a fuel cell in your next gaming laptop but the technology has a wide range of potential applications in military, commercial, and transport related uses. And that includes the development of non-nuclear powered submarines, such as the hybrid diesel/fuel cell powered Type 212A, currently operating under the command of the German Navy.

Fuel cells have been around for a while, too, with Honda launching the first production hydrogen fuel cell powered car way back in 2002, while car companies like Hyundai and Toyota and have also released production models. Although the widespread infrastructure required for re-fuelling these vehicles does not yet exist, meaning electric cars remain the go-to technology while these kinks are still being ironed out.

Still, good old caffeine eh? I'll take some comfort that, upon drinking my next cup of coffee, I too could be partaking in something that eventually leads to cleaner fuel methods of the future, and not just drinking tasty bean-juice that helps me get out of bed in the morning.