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


Hydrogen Electric Car Powered By Fuel Cells 4 Times More Efficient

Inspired by the humble cactus, a new type of membrane has the potential to significantly boost the performance of fuel cells and transform the electric vehicle industry. The membrane, developed by scientists from CSIRO (Australia) and Hanyang University in Korea, was described today in the journal Nature . The paper shows that in hot conditions the membrane, which features a water repellent skin, can improve the efficiency of fuel cells by a factor of four.

According to CSIRO researcher and co-author Dr Aaron Thornton, the skin works in a similar way to a cactus plant, which thrives by retaining water in harsh and arid environments.


Fuel cells, like the ones used in electric vehicles, generate energy by mixing together simple gases, like hydrogen and oxygen. However, in order to maintain performance, proton exchange membrane fuel cells – or PEMFCs – need to stay constantly hydrated,” Dr Thornton said.

At the moment this is achieved by placing the cells alongside a radiator, water reservoir and a humidifier. The downside is that when used in a vehicle, these occupy a large amount of space and consume significant power,” he added.

According to CSIRO researcher and co-author Dr Cara Doherty, the team’s new cactus-inspired solution offers an alternative. A cactus plant has tiny cracks, called stomatal pores, which open at night when it is cool and humid, and close during the day when the conditions are hot and arid. This helps it retain water,” Dr Doherty said. “This membrane works in a similar way. Water is generated by an electrochemical reaction, which is then regulated through nano-cracks within the skin. The cracks widen when exposed to humidifying conditions, and close up when it is drier. This means that fuel cells can remain hydrated without the need for bulky external humidifier equipment. We also found that the skin made the fuel cells up to four times as efficient in hot and dry conditions,” she added.

Professor Young Moo Lee from Hanyang University, who led the research, said that this could have major implications for many industries, including the development of electric vehicles.


Electric Car: Water Is The Future Fuel

Canadelectrochim, a non profit research and development Canadian company, have discovered a new non-platinum and nano-sized catalyst for the fuel cell based on Mother Nature which mimics the plant leaf.  The Polymer electrolyte membrane or proton exchange membrane fuel cell (PEMFC) as an optimal solution for the future energy economy.
hydrogen fuel cellsThe PEMFC, where chemical energy is directly converted to electrical energy, provides a highly efficient alternative to a standard internal combustion engine. High power density, clean emissions (water), low temperature operation, rapid start-up and shutdown, and ability to use fuels from renewable sources are several reason why fuel cells such as PEMFC have attracted attention for large market applications, such as transportation. With these unique features, PEMFC will revolutionize the future energy economy.
PEMFC will indirectly make water our future fuel. Hydrogen and oxygen generated by splitting water using photosynthesis can be used as a fuel for PEMFC. PEMFC are leading candidates to power the space shuttle and other mobile applications even down to mobile phones, however, there are still some important issues that must be resolved in order for PEMFC to be commercially competitive. It is known that splitting a hydrogen molecule at the anode of fuel cell using platinum is relatively easy. Unfortunately however, splitting the oxygen molecule at the cathode of fuel cell (oxygen reduction reaction (, ORR)) is more difficult and this causes significant polarization losses (lowers efficiency of the fuel cell). An appropriate catalyst for this process has not been discovered and as of yet platinum is the best option. In the direction of operating the fuel cell using a cost effective and non-platinum based catalyst, is the work of Canadelectrochim.