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Alternative energy news, and information about renewable energy technologies.

May 04

New Platinum Could Mean Cheaper, More Efficient Fuel Cells

Posted in Energy Inventions | Fuel Cells | Hydrogen Fuel

Platinum 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.

  • spoonerist

    Fuel cells are wonderful. Oxidizing hydrogen to produce energy is wonderful and clean. All very wonderful. But why do we seldom see discussion of the cost of producing the hydrogen? Doesn’t the energy input to split water molecules equal the energy output of reforming water molecules? So while fuel cells increase the physical convenience and practical applications, do we really save any energy?

  • greenorbz

    In a standard fuel cell, a platinum catalyst at one electrode breaks down hydrogen into protons and electrons. The protons pass through a proton exchange membrane to a second electrode where they react with oxygen to produce water. The electrons are siphoned off as electric current.

    Platinum has so far been the metal of choice because the membranes used in fuel cells create a very acidic environment, and the metal is stable in such corrosive conditions.

  • Richard Fletcher

    Regarding Spoonerist’s concern over the cost of producing the hydrogen, I believe that much of this can be done using solar energy to split the water into oxygen and hydrogen. While certainly not cheap, I believe it will pay for itself in the long run! After all, look at how natural gas vehicles are now being refueled at home.

  • styke

    Spoonerist,
    I remember a politician told a story. The constiuent had called him talking about how coal pollutes, oil supplies are unstable, nuclear is dangerous, hydropower wrecks waterways, solar is too expensive, etc. So, the politician asked, what do you propose? The constiuent said “Electricity! Cheap, clean, available.”

    In some sense, that is the same story as the hydrogen story. If we close our eyes and don’t think about how the hydrogen got there, then all is well. And, if we do develop a need for hydrogen, I expect it will be filled exactly as our need for electricity is filled. We will make it by use of nukes, coal, hydro, etc. In fact, it seems quite likely that we will make it at home from electricity made in a power plant far away. So, in that sense, there is no free ride.

    However, if they can find good ways to use hydrogen, such as powering your car, there may be an overall gain. It won’t be as straightforward as proponents are saying, but it may still make things better.

  • markv

    The thing that excites me about fuel cells is the possibility for anyone with a solar panel on their roof to generate their own portable fuel for transport. The day that technology arrives, we will laugh about the old days when we used to drill holes in the deep ocean and fight wars over fossil fuel that we had to deliver from the other side of the world. Any technology that can store energy better than todays batteries would do this. Hydrogen fuel cells sound like a contender for that future.


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