Magazine article Science News

Microchip Power from a Shrunken Fuel Cell

Magazine article Science News

Microchip Power from a Shrunken Fuel Cell

Article excerpt

Microchip power from a shrunken fuel cell

Placing miniature power supplies right where they're needed on integrated-circuit chips is a quick and efficient way of getting electrical power to a circuit's microscopic components. This goal now seems within reach with the construction of a tiny, thin-film fuel cell that generates electricity when one of its electrodes is exposed to a mixture of air and hydrogen.

"It's probably the smallest electrochemical device that anyone has ever built," says Christopher K. Dyer of Bell Communications Research in morristown, N.J. Such a device could have a broad range of applications, from low-cost portable power supplies to information processing. Dyer describes his unconventional fuel cell in the Feb. 8 NATURE.

Just as a solar cell converts light energy directly into electrical energy, Dyer's fuel cell converts chemical energy, from the reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, directly into electrical energy. The device consists of a porous, aluminum-oxide membrane only 2,000 to 5,000 angstroms thick, sandwiched between two thin platinum films that serve as electrodes (see diagram).

When exposed to a mixture of air and hydrogen at room temperature, the device develops a potential difference of roughly 1 volt between its electrodes and generates a few milliwatts of power per square centimeter. "There's never been anything in electrochemistry quite this small that can give such a high voltage with mixed gases," Dyer says.

But why the device works remains a mystery. …

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