New Platinum Could Mean Cheaper, More Efficient Fuel Cells
Fuel cells are clean and green cells. They work without polluting the environment. Fuel cells are electrochemical devices that transform the chemical energy of a fuel into electricity generating water as a by-product. Fuel cells are most used in space flights but they can be best utilized in electric vehicles to reduce air pollution. Fuel powered electric vehicles are better than battery operated EVs as far as efficiency and faster refueling is concerned.
So what is stopping us from using fuel cells on commercial scale? Current fuel cell designs need around 100 grams of platinum. We know that platinum is a precious and costly metal and it pushes the price tags of fuel cells into thousands of dollars. Now researchers at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and the University of Houston giving us some hope. They are talking about a new form of platinum that might be helpful in making cheaper, more efficient fuel cells. This work has been published in the April 25th issue of Nature Chemistry.
Anders Nilsson is a scientist, who conducts research at the Stanford Institute for Materials and Energy Sciences, a joint institute between SLAC and Stanford University. He shares his thoughts about the work, “This is a significant advance. Fuel cells were invented more than 100 years ago. They haven’t made a leap over to being a big technology yet, in part because of this difficulty with platinum.”
The team is trying to modify the platinum’s reactivity. This step will enable the researchers to cut back the quantity of platinum required by 80 percent. They are also quite positive about minimizing the quantity by another 10 percent. This will reduce the overall cost of the fuel cells. Nilsson says, “I think with a factor of ten, we’ll have a home run.”
Fuel cells work much like batteries. An anode gives out electrons and a cathode collects those electrons thus forming a circuit. So what is the difference between a fuel cell and a battery? Fuel cells use hydrogen and oxygen to complete their energy-producing reactions. The by-product is water and heat.
What metal is chosen for cathode is extremely important. Because some of the metals can’t break the oxygen molecule into atoms. And some bind strongly with oxygen so the important reactions don’t take place. Scientists are trying to attain a balance so that the number of oxygen bonds broken is maximized and the oxygen atoms attach feebly to the catalyst. Platinum helps the scientist in attaining that balance. It breaks the oxygen bonds but does not fasten to the free oxygen atoms too powerfully.
Since 2005, Peter Strasser of the University of Houston was trying to find a way out. He tried to make platinum more reactive. Strasser along with his team tried dealloying. First they created a copper-platinum alloy. Then they removed the copper from the platinum. They found that this alloy was much more reactive. Now the team will try to produce a potential replacement not only for petrol engines but also for the batteries found in small electronic devices.