Fuel cell breakthrough: Team reports success with low-cost nickel-based catalyst

January 14, 2016 by Diane Kukich
Fuel cell advance
University of Delaware Distinguished Engineering Professor Yushan Yan, at the wheel of a fuel cell vehicle, is conducting research on the use of nickel as a catalyst in an alkaline electrolyte that promises to bring down the cost of hydrogen fuel cells. Credit: Jie Zheng/University of Delaware

"Planes, Trains and Automobiles" is a popular comedy from the 1980s, but there's nothing funny about the amount of energy consumed by our nation's transportation sector.

This sector—which includes passenger cars, trucks, buses, and rail, marine, and air transport—accounts for more than 20 percent of America's energy use, mostly in the form of fossil fuels, so the search is on for environmentally friendly alternatives.

The two most promising current candidates for cars are fuel cells, which convert the chemical energy of hydrogen to electricity, and rechargeable batteries.

The University of Delaware's Yushan Yan believes that fuel cells will eventually win out.

"Both fuel cells and batteries are clean technologies that have their own sets of challenges for commercialization," says Yan, Distinguished Engineering Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

"The key difference, however, is that the problems facing battery cars, such as short driving range and long battery charging time, are left with the customers. By contrast, cars demand almost no change in customer experience because they can be charged in less than 5 minutes and be driven for more than 300 miles in one charge. And these challenges, such as hydrogen production and transportation, lie with the engineers."

Yan is prepared to address the biggest challenge fuel cells do face—cost.

He and colleagues recently reported a breakthrough that promises to bring down the cost of by replacing expensive platinum catalysts with cheaper ones made from metals like nickel. The work is documented in a paper published Jan. 14 in Nature Communications.

The researchers achieved the breakthrough by switching the operating environment from acidic to basic, and they found that nickel matched the activity of platinum.

"This new hydroxide exchange can offer high performance at an unprecedented low cost," Yan says.

"Our real hope is that we can put hydroxide exchange membrane fuel cells into cars and make them truly affordable—maybe $23,000 for a Toyota Mirai. Once the cars themselves are more affordable, that will drive development of the infrastructure to support the hydrogen economy."

Explore further: Emissions-free cars: Study characterizes essential reaction for renewable energy fuel cells

More information: "Nickel Supported on Nitrogen-doped Carbon Nanotubes as Hydrogen Oxidation Reaction Catalyst in Alkaline Electrolyte," Nature Communications, 2016.

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18 comments

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ForFreeMinds
3.3 / 5 (3) Jan 14, 2016
The cost benefits of scientific breakthroughs have to jump the economics hurdle before implementation. I hope they are successful, because then we'll be more prosperous.
syndicate_51
1 / 5 (2) Jan 15, 2016
"Planes, Trains and Automobiles" is a popular comedy from the 1980s, but there's nothing funny about the amount of energy consumed by our nation's transportation sector."

The amount of energy required to physically achieve the same feats of speed will not change, as the frictional forces, drag forces, and momentum required to be overcome to move objects will remain constant. So the transportation industry is going to technically use the same amount of energy.

Next fuel cells. Recharged on what? If it's from the power grid (which it almost certainly refers to in this article) means that instead of the emissions coming out of a tailpipe on a car it comes out of a smoke stack at a coal power plant.

Also making batteries in the first place tends to involve rather harsh chemical processes. Not the "cleanest" item to make.

You need to alter how the power gets to the grid for this to have the desired effect on pollution levels.
greenonions
5 / 5 (4) Jan 15, 2016
syndicate
So the transportation industry is going to technically use the same amount of energy.
I would take a little friendly issue with that assertion. For example - if we moved all of our freight and long distance human transportation to trains, we would reduce the energy used by a large amount (trains much more efficient than planes and trucks). One gallon of gasoline contains about 33 Kwh, but my Nissan leaf will take 24 Kwh of electricity to move me 80 miles. Again - much more efficient.
Eikka
2.3 / 5 (3) Jan 15, 2016
The amount of energy required to physically achieve the same feats of speed will not change, as the frictional forces, drag forces, and momentum required to be overcome to move objects will remain constant. So the transportation industry is going to technically use the same amount of energy.


But that's just being pedantic.

The question is about the input of primary energy that goes into the process.

Incidentally, there are processes that can turn coal and water directly into hydrogen at a great efficiency, so a hydrogen car running on coal can be more efficient than an ordinary vehicle.

The only problem is that hydrogen is the worst fuel to transport and store in any way, and it's rife with serious safety concerns. They still have ways to go to make the fuel cell work with hydrocarbons rather than plain hydrogen.
Eikka
3 / 5 (4) Jan 15, 2016
One gallon of gasoline contains about 33 Kwh, but my Nissan leaf will take 24 Kwh of electricity to move me 80 miles. Again - much more efficient.


Depeds on your context. Round here a Nissan Leaf goes 60 miles or less on a battery because it tends to get cold and snowy part of the year - less than ideal conditions for an EV. Meanwhile a small diesel car gets 50 miles to the gallon. 0.66 kWh per mile versus 0.4 kWh per mile - the difference isn't that great.

In practice the difference is completely negated when you consider the average efficiency of electricity production and transmission versus petroleum refining and delivery. The electric car ends up using more primary energy.

That's the problem with this generation of EVs. The infrastructure isn't really suited for them, and by the time the infrastructure has been re-built, the EVs of today have long since been scrapped. From an environmental and energy conservation point of view, you shouldn't buy them.

Eikka
2.3 / 5 (3) Jan 15, 2016
And you also have to consider the embedded energy of the battery. With an ESOEI of 10:1 a typical EV has to add 10-20% more energy in the calculations because it takes such a massive amount of energy to make a battery, and you're not likely to use it optimally to extract the maximum number of cycles before it breaks down due to old age.

Cost in money is a fairly good indication of cost in energy, because all money implies economic activity which demands energy, and EVs are still ridiculously expensive.

For example, in order for a Norwegian citizen to import a Tesla Model S from the US, Norway has to sell about 3000 barrels of oil in order to make up the trade deficit. That's 3000 x 1.7 MWh = 5.1 GWh worth of primary energy.

gkam
3 / 5 (6) Jan 15, 2016
Eikka invents these scenarios as if they are likely. We had guys like that in California - ("It can't be done!"), . We sent them home.

Norway IS importing Teslas, though - record numbers of them. I suggest you not stink up their neighborhoods with your smelly diesel.
Whydening Gyre
4.5 / 5 (2) Jan 15, 2016
That's the problem with this generation of EVs. The infrastructure isn't really suited for them, and by the time the infrastructure has been re-built, the EVs of today have long since been scrapped. From an environmental and energy conservation point of view, you shouldn't buy them.

From an auto makers point of view - "Bazinga!!! Honey, we're going to Disneyland!"
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (4) Jan 15, 2016
By contrast, fuel cell cars demand almost no change in customer experience because they can be charged in less than 5 minutes and be driven for more than 300 miles in one charge. And these challenges, such as hydrogen production and transportation, lie with the engineers."

Good summation. the issue for which will win out is one of infrastructure. To get fuel cells going we need refill stations and distribution (or on the spot creation) of the refill medium. This means up front(!) investment by companies/governments - which is not going to happen on that scale unless it is 100% certain this is the way to go for the long run.
Batteries shift the cost to the end user, so are much less risky for companies wanting to manufacture/sell cars.

(Note that I think fuel cells would be nicer to have. But by the above rationale I think it's, unfortunately, not going to happen unless it's coupled with great national investment in storage technologies for the grid)
greenonions
5 / 5 (4) Jan 15, 2016
Eikka -
The infrastructure isn't really suited for them,


The infrastructure is well suited to them where I am - wife plugs in every night for about 4 hours - and replaces the electricity used on here commute. See Eikka - you don't know what you are talking about. The electricity costs us about 2 cents per mile in the summer - and 4 cents for the rest of the year. We are signed up for 100% wind - which is of course somewhat deceptive - but Oklahoma is adding wind turbines every year - and the mix is changing. So all of your points are yesterdays news Eikka. Maybe instead of insulting gkam and telling him he 'just needs to leave' - you could take your own advice - or perhaps just get your facts more correct before posting.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (3) Jan 15, 2016
Of course if you are an unbridled optimist, and tend to believe in highly unlikely but nevertheless not unprecedented discoveries (because rossis commercial-scale 1MW reactor is nearing the end of a year-long trial powering an actual production line with apparently stellar results
http://www.e-catw...etitive/
), then you might believe that there is a lot more energy to be derived from nickel than in fuel cells...

"Dear Mr Rossi,
What would be the weight and the volume (perhaps liters) of a 20 kw e-cat x reactor?
Thank you.

Andrea Rossi

January 13th, 2016 at 5:15 PM
Hergen:
Ballpark numbers: like a 20 cigarette packet, while the weight c ould be 300-400 grams, plus the apparatus to use the energy, that is different depending on the use, the fluid, etc.
Warm Regards,
A.R."
http://www.e-catw...-packet/
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (3) Jan 15, 2016
Kind of like this
http://www.electr...550.html

-Only smaller and lighter, depending on energy extraction and conversion. And a lot quieter.
big_hairy_jimbo
5 / 5 (5) Jan 15, 2016
Really Ghost?? You are still following Andrea Rossi and the Ecat machine??? WOW!!
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (1) Jan 16, 2016
Really Ghost?? You are still following Andrea Rossi and the Ecat machine??? WOW!!
-And youre not? WoW!!

Ignorance is bliss i guess.
Eikka
not rated yet Feb 03, 2016
or perhaps just get your facts more correct before posting.


But you didn't refute any of what I said.

The infrastructure is well suited to them where I am - wife plugs in every night for about 4 hours - and replaces the electricity used on here commute. See Eikka - you don't know what you are talking about. The electricity costs us about 2 cents per mile in the summer - and 4 cents for the rest of the year.


You simply switched from kWh per mile to dollars per mile as if they were the same thing. You're refuting issues that were not raised.

The point that I raised was that electric cars consume more primary energy than fossil fuel powered cars, in every respect from the materials to the economic cost, to the energy they use combined. The infrastructure isn't there for them to be efficient and effective as a means to offset climate change and the energy problems associated with it.
Eikka
not rated yet Feb 03, 2016
Eikka invents these scenarios as if they are likely.


They are not "scenarios". They're simple calculations based on reality: Norway sells oil - their main export - to make money. Therefore every Tesla car sold to Norway implies that someone is burning thousands of barrels of oil.

We had guys like that in California - ("It can't be done!"), . We sent them home.


I am not saying it cannot be done. I am simply saying that doing so does not achieve the intended purpose. Using today's electric cars is a net-negative for the environment and the economy, and mostly amount to smug feelgood and moral licensing.

It's fine if you aknowledge being an early adopter of a technology that is not yet done - the problems start when people pretend that this is it, that the problems are all solved and we're already there, because that attitude is actually slowing down progress and slamming down other solutions because you drank up the EV industry kool-aid.
Eikka
not rated yet Feb 03, 2016
Good summation. the issue for which will win out is one of infrastructure. To get fuel cells going we need refill stations and distribution (or on the spot creation) of the refill medium. This means up front(!) investment by companies/governments - which is not going to happen on that scale unless it is 100% certain this is the way to go for the long run.


Two points:

Fuel cell vehicles do not need to run on pure hydrogen. Hydrogen is just a convenient drag-your-feet solution for automakers who don't want to throw away their existing technology lineups just yet.

The infrastructure for CNG and propane vehicles already exists in many places and the fuel is already widely distributed. The fuel itself is extremely cheap, easy to handle, offers better characteristics than hydrogen, and the production and synthesis is possible by several means from waste to biomass to synthesis from renewable power.

Eikka
not rated yet Feb 03, 2016
The point of aiming for a pie-in-the-sky like hydrogen is that governments are easier to persuade into giving you grants and subsidies if the technology you're developing falls into any one of the "green" categories as identified by the public.

If it's solar powered, hydrogen fueled, battery operated, running on the wind or any other buzzword, that's a big PR bonus. If the automakers were saying that they're developing a next generation efficient natural gas vehicle, the usual pundits would cry out and criticize them for it.

So instead, the industry is doing the basic research under the guise of hydrogen economy, but the first one to get the fuel cell technology down in price and up in performance will spring out a methane/flex-fuel version and take the market with that.

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