Researchers at the University of California, Riverside, have developed an inexpensive and efficient alternative catalyst material for fuel cells, a cleaner source of electricity than natural gas or coal.
Their paper is published in Small.
A fuel cell uses fuels, such as hydrogen, to produce cleaner and more efficient energy than conventional combustion sources. Additionally, it has a wide range of applications, from running an entire utility power station to running a single laptop.
For example, in the car industry, compared to conventional gasoline vehicles, vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells offer advantages like higher efficiency, quieter operation and lower emissions by 50 or even 90 percent.
Despite all the positives, industries are slow to fully adopting fuel cells. Why? Money. Fuel cell’s key component, platinum, is a very expensive, rare metal.
“I had previously worked in industry, where I focused on creating efficient fuel cell and battery materials,” said David Kisailus, the lead researcher and the Winston Chung Endowed Professor Energy Innovation at UCR’s Marlon and Rosemary Bourns College of Engineering. “During this time, it was known that cost was one of the main factors limiting fuel cell development and that platinum was the main component driving up the cost. Thus, we aimed to have a more affordable catalyst that could perform as good as platinum.”
Through a technique called electrospinning, the researchers created paper-thin, highly porous sheets of carbon nanofibers, made of metal ions, such as cobalt, which is more than 100 times cheaper than platinum. When heated, the ions in the sheets formed ultrafine metal nanoparticles that catalyzed carbon’s transformation into a high-performance graphitic carbon.
This catalyst material makes a fuel cell called a polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM), which turns the chemical energy of hydrogen into electricity. It is one of the most promising fuel cell types to power cars and electronics.
While using a relatively abundant and cheaper metal ions, such as cobalt, this catalyst material performed as well as platinum.
“The key to the high performance of the materials we created is the combination of the chemistry and fiber processing conditions,” Kisailus said in a statement. “The remarkable electrochemical properties were primarily attributed to the synergistic effects obtained from the engineering of the metal oxide with exposed active sites and the 3D hierarchical porous graphitic structure.”
Lowering price of fuel cells cars
According to Kisailus, the material’s graphitic fiber nature adds additional strength and durability, allowing it to be used as both a fuel cell catalyst and potentially as a structural component.
For example, with the new catalyst material, automakers may be allowed to turn a vehicle’s structural components, such as its hood, into functional elements that help power cars.
“An important challenge in making high-performance vehicles is reducing weight, both from the body of the vehicle as well as extra weight from the battery or fuel cell, without affecting safety or performance,” Kisailus said in a statement.
But, at the very least, this new material, made of much cheaper metals than platinum, will allow automakers to build affordable fuel cell vehicles.
“We do not claim that the new catalyst will create more efficient cars, but it will make them affordable and therefore, more accessible to the general public,” said Kisailus.
The researchers are planning on scaling their technology.
“We want to make sure we can produce large quantities of these materials while still maintaining performance,” Kisailus said. “Since the article was published, three companies have already reached out to me to work together. We are considering a start-up company now.”