Making Fuel Cells for a Fraction of the Cost

It is the third announcement in less than one week for a major improvment in the making of fuel cells.

In the competition between Lithium-Ion batteries (e.g. Tesla cars), and hydrogen fuel cells (see picture of Nexo from Hyundai) that power electric cars, it is difficult to predict which one will be the winner at the end.

Fuel cells have the potential to be a clean and efficient way to run cars, computers, and power stations, but the cost of producing them is limiting their use. That’s because a key component of the most common fuel cells is a catalyst made from the precious metal platinum.

In a paper published in Small, researchers at the University of California, Riverside (UCR), describe the development of an inexpensive, efficient catalyst material for a type of fuel cell called a polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cell (PEMFC), which turns the chemical energy of hydrogen into electricity and is among the most promising fuel cell types to power cars and electronics.

The catalyst developed at UCR is made of porous carbon nanofibers embedded with a compound made from a relatively abundant metal such as cobalt, which is more than 100 times less expensive than platinum. The research was led by David Kisailus, the Winston Chung Endowed Professor in Energy Innovation in UCR’s Marlan and Rosemary Bourns College of Engineering.

Fuel cells, which are already being used by some carmakers, offer advantages over conventional combustion technologies, including higher efficiency, quieter operation and lower emissions. Hydrogen fuel cells emit only water.

Like batteries, fuel cells are electrochemical devices that comprise a positive and negative electrode sandwiching an electrolyte. When a hydrogen fuel is injected onto the anode, a catalyst separates the hydrogen molecules into positively charged particles called protons and negatively charged particles called electrons. The electrons are directed through an external circuit, where they do useful work, such as powering an electric motor, before rejoining the positively charged hydrogen ions and oxygen to form water.

A critical barrier to fuel cell adoption is the cost of platinum, making the development of alternative catalyst materials a key driver for their mass implementation.

Using a technique called electrospinning, the UCR researchers made paper-thin sheets of carbon nanofibers that contained metal ions — either cobalt, iron or nickel. Kisailus and his team, collaborating with scientists at Stanford University, determined that the new materials performed as good as the industry standard platinum-carbon systems, but at a fraction of the cost. “The key to the high performance of the materials we created is the combination of the chemistry and fiber processing conditions,” Kisailus said


Gilded fuel cells boost electric car efficiency

To make modern-day fuel cells less expensive and more powerful, a team led by Johns Hopkins chemical engineers has drawn inspiration from the ancient Egyptian tradition of gilding. Egyptian artists at the time of King Tutankhamun often covered cheaper metals (copper, for instance) with a thin layer of a gleaming precious metal such as gold to create extravagant masks and jewelry. In a modern-day twist, the Johns Hopkins-led researchers have applied a tiny coating of costly platinum just one nanometer thick—100,000 times thinner than a human hair—to a core of much cheaper cobalt. This microscopic marriage could become a crucial catalyst in new fuel cells that generate electric current to power cars and other machines.

The new fuel cell design would save money because it would require far less platinum, a very rare and expensive metal that is commonly used as a catalyst in present-day fuel-cell electric cars. The researchers, who published their work earlier this year in Nano Letters, say that by making electric cars more affordable, this innovation could curb the emission of carbon dioxide and other pollutants from gasoline– or diesel-powered vehicles.

This technique could accelerate our launch out of the fossil fuel era,” said Chao Wang, a Johns Hopkins assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and senior author of the study. “It will not only reduce the cost of fuel cells. It will also improve the energy efficiency and power performance of clean electric vehicles powered by hydrogen.”

In their journal article, the authors tipped their hats to the ancient Egyptian artisans who used a similar plating technique to give copper masks and other metallic works of art a lustrous final coat of silver or gold.The idea,” Wang said, “is to put a little bit of the precious treasure on top of the cheap stuff.”

He pointed out that platinum, frequently used in jewelry, also is a critical material in modern industry. It catalyzes essential reactions in activities including petroleum processing, petrochemical synthesis, and emission control in combustion vehicles, and is used in fuel cells. But, he said, platinum’s high cost and limited availability have made its use in clean energy technologies largely impractical—until now.


How To Use Computers Heat To Generate Electricity

Electronic devices such as computers generate heat that mostly goes to waste. Physicists at Bielefeld University (Germany) have found a way to use this energy: They apply the heat to generate magnetic signals known as ‘spin currents’. In future, these signals could replace some of the electrical current in electronic components. In a new study, the physicists tested which materials can generate this spin current most effectively from heat. The research was carried out in cooperation with colleagues from the University of Greifswald, Gießen University, and the Leibniz Institute for Solid State and Materials Research in Dresden.

The Bielefeld physicists are working on the basic principles for making data processing more effective and energy-efficient in the young field of ‘spin caloritronics’. They are members of the ‘Thin Films & Physics of Nanostructures’ research group headed by Professor Dr. Günter Reiss. Their new study determines the strength of the spin current for various combinations of thin films.

A spin current is produced by differences in temperature between two ends of an electronic component. These components are extremely small and only one millionth of a millimetre thick. Because they are composed of magnetic materials such as iron, cobalt, or nickel, they are called magnetic nanostructures.

The physicists take two such nanofilms and place a layer of metal oxide between them that is only a few atoms thick. They heat up one of the external films – for example, with a hot nanowire or a focused laser. Electrons with a specific spin orientation then pass through the metal oxide. This produces the spin current. A spin can be conceived as electrons spinning on their own axes – either clockwise or anti-clockwise.

Their findings have been  published  in the research journal ‘Nature Communications’.



A team of scientists led by Associate Professor Yang Hyunsoo from the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Faculty of Engineering has invented a novel ultra-thin multilayer film which could harness the properties of tiny magnetic whirls, known as skyrmions, as information carriers for storing and processing data (nanocomputer) on magnetic media. The nano-sized thin film, which was developed in collaboration with researchers from Brookhaven National Laboratory, Stony Brook University, and Louisiana State University, is a critical step towards the design of data storage devices that use less power and work faster than existing memory technologies.

The digital transformation has resulted in ever-increasing demands for better processing and storing of large amounts of data, as well as improvements in hard drive technology. Since their discovery in magnetic materials in 2009, skyrmions, which are tiny swirling magnetic textures only a few nanometres in size, have been extensively studied as possible information carriers in next-generation data storage and logic devices.

Skyrmions have been shown to exist in layered systems, with a heavy metal placed beneath a ferromagnetic material. Due to the interaction between the different materials, an interfacial symmetry breaking interaction, known as the Dzyaloshinskii-Moriya interaction (DMI), is formed, and this helps to stabilise a skyrmion. However, without an out-of-plane magnetic field present, the stability of the skyrmion is compromised. In addition, due to its tiny size, it is difficult to image the nano-sized materials. The NUS team found that a large DMI could be maintained in multilayer films composed of cobalt and palladium, and this is large enough to stabilise skyrmion spin textures.

skyrmionsThis experiment not only demonstrates the usefulness of L-TEM in studying these systems, but also opens up a completely new material in which skyrmions can be created. Without the need for a biasing field, the design and implementation of skyrmion based devices are significantly simplified. The small size of the skyrmions, combined with the incredible stability generated here, could be potentially useful for the design of next-generation spintronic devices that are energy efficient and can outperform current memory technologies,” explains Professor Yang .

The invention was reported in the journal Nature Communications.


New Cheap Catalyst To Produce Hydrogen From Water

Graphene doped with nitrogen and augmented with cobalt atoms has proven to be an effective, durable catalyst for the production of hydrogen from water, according to scientists at Rice University. The Rice lab of chemist James Tour and colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the University of Texas at San Antonio and the University of Houston have reported the development of a robust, solid-state catalyst that shows promise to replace expensive platinum for hydrogen generation.

Tucson fuel cell

Catalysts can split water into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen atoms, a process required for fuel cells. Hydrogen electric cars as the Tucson from Hyundai are powered by fuel cells.
The latest discovery, detailed in Nature Communications, is a significant step toward lower-cost catalysts for energy production, according to the researchers.

What’s unique about this paper is that we show not the use of metal particles, not the use of metal nanoparticles, but the use of atoms,” Tour said. “The particles doing this chemistry are as small as you can possibly get.
We’re getting away with very little cobalt to make a catalyst that nearly matches the best platinum catalysts.” In comparison tests, he said the new material nearly matched platinum’s efficiency to begin reacting at a low onset voltage, the amount of electricity it needs to begin separating water into hydrogen and oxygen.


EV: A Thin Film That Produces Oxygen and Hydrogen

A cobalt-based thin film serves double duty as a new catalyst that produces both hydrogen and oxygen from water to feed fuel cells, according to scientists at Rice University. This discovery may lower the cost of future hydrogen electric car.  The inexpensive, highly porous material invented by the Rice lab of chemist James Tour may have advantages as a catalyst for the production of hydrogen via water electrolysis. A single film far thinner than a hair can be used as both the anode and cathode in an electrolysis device.

The researchers led by Rice postdoctoral researcher Yang Yang reported their discovery  in Advanced Materials.

They determined their cobalt film is much better at producing hydrogen than most state-of-the-art materials and is competitive with (and much cheaper than) commercial platinum catalysts. They reported the catalyst also produced an oxygen evolution reaction comparable to current materials.


A side view of a porous cobalt phosphide/phosphate thin film created at Rice University. The robust film could replace expensive metals like platinum in water-electrolysis devices that produce hydrogen and oxygen for fuel cells. The scale bar equals 500 nanometers.

It is amazing that in water-splitting, the same material can make both hydrogen and oxygen,” Tour said. “Usually materials make one or the other, but not both.”

The researchers suggested applying alternating current from wind or solar energy sources to cobalt-based electrolysis could be an environmentally friendly source of hydrogen and oxygen.