Hydrogen Fuel Cells Can Be Produced Without Platinum

A group of physicists from the United States announces the development of a new method of producing hydrogen fuel cells. The approach does not require the use of scarce and expensive platinum, and this could significantly contribute to boosting this field of research.

Fuel cells have been touted as the next big thing in technology for several decades, yet progress in this area has been slow. One of the main reasons for that is the fact that some of the elements needed to create the energy sources are very expensive.

This automatically raises the prices of the fuel cells themselves, making them inaccessible to the general public, and in no way an alternative to fossil fuels. However, employing fuel cells would reduce pollution considerably, as they only generate water as a byproduct.

In their new study, experts with the US Department of Energy (DOE) Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) managed to identify a platinum-free catalyst that can be used for the same purposes as its platinum-based counterpart.

The work was led by LANL experts Gang Wu, Christina Johnston, and Piotr Zelenay, who collaborated closely with colleagues from the DOE Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), led by Karren More.

The scientists explains that, at more than $1,800 per ounce, platinum is driving fuel cell costs way up. If the industry were to adopt platinum as a standard material, than increased demand would drive costs up even further.

In the new catalyst, the reactions that are usually carried out thanks to platinum take place when triggered by a combination of carbon, iron and cobalt. This mix successfully replaces the precious chemical, and produces similar levels of efficiency.

At the same time, the production of hydrogen peroxide – an undesirable compound whose creation diminishes the energy output of fuel cells – is maintained at very low levels, so there are multiple advantages to using the new carbon-iron-cobalt catalyst, the group explains.

“The encouraging point is that we have found a catalyst with a good durability and life cycle relative to platinum-based catalysts,” explains Zelenay. He is the corresponding author of a new paper describing the catalyst, which was published in the April 22 issue of the top journal Science.

“For all intents and purposes, this is a zero-cost catalyst in comparison to platinum, so it directly addresses one of the main barriers to hydrogen fuel cells,” the expert goes on to say.

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