Fuel Cell Breakthrough Reported

Via Stochastix: a new advance in fuel cell technology has made its oxygen reduction catalysis rate faster by a factor of 90.

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.

5 Responses to Fuel Cell Breakthrough Reported

  1. SLC says:

    Platinum? Mr. Levy has to be kidding me. According to Fridays’ Washington Post, the current cost of platinum is nearly $1200/ounce. I don’t know how much platinum is used in fuel cells but at that price (which will skyrocket if the demand for platinum increases significantly) fuel cells don’t seem very cost effective.

  2. Alon Levy says:

    As of 2004, there are 60 grams of platinum to a cell. Advances like this one are constantly reducing the amount of platinum required, which obviously reduces costs.

  3. SLC says:

    Re Levy

    That’s approximately 2 ounces, i.e. $2400. It would appear that either a replacement for platinum will have to be found or the amount required will have to be reduced by at least a factor of 10 to make a fuel cell at theoretically affordable in anything less then a Lexus or Mercedes Benz.

  4. Alon Levy says:

    But a car only needs one of these. $2,400 per car is only slightly higher than the annual cost of fuel for a car that uses an internal combustion engine.

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