More Durable Fuel Cells For Hydrogen Electric Car

Take a ride on the University of Delaware’s (UDFuel Cell bus, and you see that fuel cells can power vehicles in an eco-friendly way. In just the last two years, Toyota, BMW and Honda have released vehicles that run on fuel cells, and carmakers such as GM, BMW and VW are working on prototypes.  If their power sources lasted longer and cost less, fuel cell vehicles could go mainstream faster. Now, a team of engineers at UD has developed a technology that could make fuel cells cheaper and more durable.

Hydrogen-powered fuel cells are a green alternative to internal combustion engines because they produce power through electrochemical reactions, leaving no pollution behind. Materials called catalysts spur these electrochemical reactions. Platinum is the most common catalyst in the type of fuel cells used in vehicles. However, platinum is expensive — as anyone who’s shopped for jewelry knows. The metal costs around $30,000 per kilogram. Instead, the UD team made a catalyst of tungsten carbide, which goes for around $150 per kilogram. They produced tungsten carbide nanoparticles in a novel way, much smaller and more scalable than previous methods.

The material is typically made at very high temperatures, about 1,500 Celsius, and at these temperatures, it grows big and has little surface area for chemistry to take place on,” explains Vlachos, professor at the Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation (UD). “Our approach is one of the first to make nanoscale material of high surface area that can be commercially relevant for catalysis.”

The researchers made tungsten carbide nanoparticles using a series of steps including hydrothermal treatment, separation, reduction, carburization and more. The results are described in a paper published in Nature Communications.