Say hello to cheaper hydrogen fuel cells: Scientists document utility of non-precious-metal catalysts

Apr 21, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists have developed a way to avoid the use of expensive platinum in hydrogen fuel cells, the environmentally friendly devices that might replace current power sources in everything from personal data devices to automobiles.

In a paper published today in Science, Los Alamos researchers Gang Wu, Christina Johnston, and Piotr Zelenay, joined by researcher Karren More of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, describe the use of a platinum-free catalyst in the of a hydrogen fuel cell. Eliminating platinum—a precious metal more expensive than gold—would solve a significant economic challenge that has thwarted widespread use of large-scale hydrogen fuel cell systems.

Polymer-electrolyte hydrogen fuel cells convert hydrogen and oxygen into electricity. The cells can be enlarged and combined in series for high-power applications, including automobiles. Under optimal conditions, the produces water as a "waste" product and does not emit greenhouse gasses. However, because the use of platinum in catalysts is necessary to facilitate the reactions that produce electricity within a fuel cell, widespread use of fuel cells in common applications has been cost prohibitive. An increase in the demand for platinum-based catalysts could drive up the cost of platinum even higher than its current value of nearly $1,800 an ounce.

The Los Alamos researchers developed non-precious-metal catalysts for the part of the fuel cell that reacts with oxygen. The catalysts—which use carbon (partially derived from polyaniline in a high-temperature process), and inexpensive iron and cobalt instead of platinum—yielded high power output, good efficiency, and promising longevity. The researchers found that fuel cells containing the carbon-iron-cobalt catalyst synthesized by Wu not only generated currents comparable to the output of precious-metal-catalyst fuel cells, but held up favorably when cycled on and off—a condition that can damage inferior catalysts relatively quickly.

Moreover, the carbon-iron-cobalt catalyst fuel cells effectively completed the conversion of hydrogen and oxygen into water, rather than producing large amounts of undesirable hydrogen peroxide. Inefficient conversion of the fuels, which generates hydrogen peroxide, can reduce power output by up to 50 percent, and also has the potential to destroy membranes. Fortunately, the carbon- iron-cobalt catalysts synthesized at Los Alamos create extremely small amounts of hydrogen peroxide, even when compared with state-of-the-art platinum-based oxygen-reduction catalysts.

Because of the successful performance of the new catalyst, the Los Alamos researchers have filed a patent for it.

"The encouraging point is that we have found a catalyst with a good durability and life cycle relative to platinum-based catalysts," said Zelenay, corresponding author for the paper. "For all intents and purposes, this is a zero-cost catalyst in comparison to , so it directly addresses one of the main barriers to hydrogen fuel cells."

The next step in the team's research will be to better understand the mechanism underlying the carbon-iron-cobalt catalyst. Micrographic images of portions of the by researcher More have provided some insight into how it functions, but further work must be done to confirm theories by the research team. Such an understanding could lead to improvements in non-precious-metal catalysts, further increasing their efficiency and lifespan.

Explore further: Team pioneers strategy for creating new materials

Related Stories

Carbon Nanotubes Make Fuel Cells Cheaper

Feb 09, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- As fuel cells are becoming more popular due to their potential use in applications such as hydrogen-powered vehicles, auxiliary power systems, and electronic devices, the need for the precious ...

Argonne to study fuel cell catalysts

May 26, 2005

Argonne National Laboratory will receive $3 million over three years for basic science studies that may lead to improved catalysts for hydrogen fuel cells.

Replacing Platinum in Fuel Cell Technology

Oct 20, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- One of the biggest hindrances to the development of fuel cell technology is its cost. In order to work properly, polymer electrolyte fuel cells require a catalyst. So far, though, the most ...

Recommended for you

Team pioneers strategy for creating new materials

Aug 29, 2014

Making something new is never easy. Scientists constantly theorize about new materials, but when the material is manufactured it doesn't always work as expected. To create a new strategy for designing materials, ...

Plug n' Play protein crystals

Aug 29, 2014

Almost a hundred years ago in 1929 Linus Pauling presented the famous Pauling's Rules to describe the principles governing the structure of complex ionic crystals. These rules essentially describe how the ...

Breaking benzene

Aug 27, 2014

Aromatic compounds are found widely in natural resources such as petroleum and biomass, and breaking the carbon-carbon bonds in these compounds plays an important role in the production of fuels and valuable ...

User comments : 5

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

pip010
1 / 5 (2) Apr 21, 2011
What? you dont need platinum all you need is good quality STEEL. And seriously after the killing of Stanley Mayer .. this can hardly go as news
bfast
Apr 21, 2011
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
that_guy
5 / 5 (5) Apr 21, 2011
*sigh* this is a significant advance in a technology that has been perpetually "20 years away", and this research may help break that cycle and bring it to market in vehicles like the volt (Replacing the deisel generator.)

Why am I sighing? The comments coming from left field are about crackpot theories and have nothing to do with the article.
neiorah
not rated yet Apr 21, 2011
I hope the implement it soon because even electric cars use harmful metals and chemicals in their making. Recycling the batteries is not going to be a green thing either. Hydrogen is the way to go
rwinners
not rated yet Apr 25, 2011
I hope the implement it soon because even electric cars use harmful metals and chemicals in their making. Recycling the batteries is not going to be a green thing either. Hydrogen is the way to go


If we can find a way to store it efficiently. It tends to leak through just about anything.
fromtvm
not rated yet Apr 29, 2011
HOPE,there is no hidden problems