The slow rate of oxygen-reduction catalysis on the cathode – a fuel cell’s positively charged electrode – has been a primary factor hindering development of the polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cells favored for use in vehicles powered by hydrogen.
“The existing limitations facing PEM fuel cell technology applications in the transportation sector could be eliminated with the development of stable cathode catalysts with several orders of magnitude increase in activity over today’s state-of-the-art catalysts, and that is what our discovery has the potential to provide,” said Vojislav Stamenkovic, a scientist with dual appointments in the Materials Sciences Division of both Berkeley Lab and Argonne.
Stamenkovic and Argonne senior scientist Nenad Markovic are the corresponding authors of a study whose results are now available online from the journal Science. The paper, entitled Improved Oxygen Reduction Activity on Pt3Ni(111) via Increased Surface Site Availability, reports a platinum-nickel alloy that increased the catalytic activity of a fuel cell cathode by an astonishing 90-fold over the platinum-carbon cathode catalysts used today.
It’ll be a great irony if at the precise moment American politicians grumblingly accept the need to reduce oil use via regulation, the fuel cell will become an economically viable way of powering cars.
Note that although fuel cells use another finite resource, platinum, the rise of platinum production will take sufficient pressure off oil. In addition, while oil has a biotic origin, which means it’s impossible to harvest outside Earth, platinum is likely available on the Moon or on asteroids, making additional harvesting a matter of investing in space technology rather than of conserving a very limited resource.