Fuel cells and solar cells could become cheaper and more efficient if technology advances announced this week reach their potential.

The fuel-cell studies -- from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., and the Universidad Compultense de Madrid in Spain -- are slated for publication in the Science journal on Friday, while solar company Day4 Energy announced what it calls a "breakthrough" in solar technology on Wednesday.

Fuel cells:

  • Splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen, a key component in many fuel cells, usually requires a catalyst made of costly platinum. In a podcast with the Science journal, MIT professor Daniel Nocera said his lab has come up with a new catalyst, a thin film of cobalt and phosphate, which separates the elements of water more cheaply and efficiently. Nocera said fuel cells employing this new catalyst could be used to store excess electricity from renewable-energy projects, such as solar or wind power. (The cells would use electricity to make fuel, which then could be converted back into electricity when needed.)


  • Advocates claim that solid oxide fuel cells, which use a ceramic membrane and don't require a platinum catalyst, are among the most efficient at converting fuel into electricity. They also have the advantage of being able to use a variety of fuels. But they only function at high temperatures -- above 700 degrees Celsius, according to Science -- using large amounts of energy and limiting their use. A team of researchers, led by Javier Garcia-Barriocanal at the Universidad Compultense de Madrid, has developed a new membrane material that enables the fuel cells to operate just above room temperature. The material, which includes a type of zirconia and strontium titanate, allows fuel, air and water to flow through the cell more easily.


  • Day4 Energy, a solar company that trades on the Toronto Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol "DFE," said it has developed a new technology that can cut the cost of producing solar cells by up to 25 percent. While the company is keeping the specifics under wraps, it said it is using a low-heat process and a technology that places the metal contacts that collect and conduct energy from the sun on the back of its cells. (SunPower (NSDQ: SPWR) produces back-contact cells, which boost efficiency by avoiding reflecting sunlight away.)

    The new design and manufacturing process, which uses the company's existing manufacturing equipment, come from techniques often used in industrial chemistry, according to the company. Day4 said the technology also boosts the efficiency of its multicrystalline cells from 14.7 percent to 18 percent. While companies such as Mitsubishi Electric Corp. and 1336 Technologies have been able to produce multicrystalline cells that can convert more sunlight into electricity in the labs, average efficiencies in mass production have been far lower. Day4's 14.7 percent rating puts it in the top 5 percent of commercial technologies, according to the California Energy Commission.