Washington State University researchers have developed the first fuel cell that can directly convert fuels, such as jet fuel or gasoline, to electricity, providing a dramatically more energy-efficient way to create electric power for planes or cars.

Graduate Student Byeong Wan Kwon (left) and WSU Associate Professor Su Ha inspect a fuel cell.

About 10 years ago, the researchers began developing a solid-oxide fuel cell to provide electrical power on commercial airplanes. In addition to increasing fuel efficiency and reducing emissions of harmful pollutants, fuel cells are quiet and would be particularly helpful when a plane is at a gate and the main jet engines are turned off.

Using a unique catalyst material and a novel processing technique, the team has produced a high-performance fuel cell that operates when directly fed with a jet fuel surrogate. The researchers envision integrating their fuel cell with a battery to power auxiliary power units. These units are currently powered by gas turbines, and operate lights, navigation systems, and various other electrical systems.