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Powerful magnets help scientists create new materials for use in low-carbon energy

West Midlands scientists have created and studied new materials set to make low-carbon energy technologies like fuel cells cheaper and more efficient to run.

Collaborative research efforts involving the University of Warwick and University of Birmingham have paved the way for improved efficiency in fuel cells to be used in homes, buildings, construction sites, war zones or anywhere where isolated forms of power generation are required.

Many major companies use fuel cell systems and in the UK, for example, some are even looking at trialling this technology as a replacement for gas boilers.

Fuel cells convert hydrogen and oxygen into water and in the process produce electricity, making them an attractive form of low-carbon energy.

However, they operate at very high temperatures and take a long time to reach and stabilise at these operational temperatures.

By introducing the new materials - known as rare-earth apatites - into their design, the working temperatures and the time needed to reach them will be reduced, improving operational aspects of the device and making it more efficient.

Lower operational temperature also means that they will last longer and be cheaper to produce.

John Hanna, Principal Research Fellow in the Department of Physics at the University of Warwick, said: ”Fuel cells typically operate at temperatures of around 800 - 1,000 degrees, and you cannot just flick a switch and get power from them immediately.

“However, the conduction properties of these new materials means that these operational temperatures can be reduced, meaning that higher efficiencies and cost savings can be achieved.

“These clear benefits will strengthen what is already an environmentally friendly and easily positioned energy source.”

The facilities and equipment used for the research have been funded by Birmingham Science City as part of the Science City Research Alliance Energy Efficiency (AM1) Project.

Part of the research was carried out using Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) instruments at the University of Warwick’s Centre for Magnetic Resonance.

This facility is home to the UK’s largest solid-state NMR magnet laboratory.

This technique allows researchers to gain a detailed understanding of the structure and motion of molecules and atoms within material frameworks, which will help in the design and creation of new ‘energy materials’ for fuel cell, hydrogen storage and battery technologies.

The facility also conducts research into new drug and pharmaceutical development and can even provide insights into diseases such as Alzheimer's.

Notes to editors

John Hanna is available on or +44 (0)24761 50806

Or you can contact Anna Blackaby, University of Warwick press officer, on +44 (0)2476 575910 or +44 (0) 7785 433155 or

The research is published in the journal Angewandte Chemie xygen Defects and Novel Transport Mechanisms in Apatite Ionic Conductors: Combined 17O NMR and Modeling Studies.

The UK 850 MHz solid-state NMR Facility used in this research was funded by EPSRC and BBSRC, as well as the University of Warwick including via part funding through the Science City Research Alliance (SCRA) supported by Advantage West Midlands (AWM) and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).

The 500 MHz solid-state NMR spectrometer at the University of Warwick used in this research was funded through the SCRA Hydrogen Energy project, with support from AWM.

The Science City Research Alliance (SCRA) is a strategic partnership between two of the leading research universities in the Midlands, the University of Birmingham and the University of Warwick, working across the technology areas of Advanced Materials, Energy Futures and Translational Medicine with funding from Birmingham Science City, AWM and ERDF.

Birmingham Science City is a regional initiative which develops and uses science and technology to improve the prosperity and quality of life of the West Midlands and the UK.