Hydrogen power is a tantalizing green energy solution, but the need for expensive materials such as platinum in hydrogen fuel cells has held the technology back commercially.
A new fuel cell design minimizes this cost by using inexpensive materials in place of platinum catalysts — an advance that could help hydrogen power become more commercially viable. The new nonmetal catalyst materials can produce hydrogen power with efficiency comparable to that of platinum, researchers report in the journal ACS Central Science.
"If the problem of catalyst cost can be overcome, a fuel cell car could offer high performance without squandering natural resources," lead study author James Gerken told Tech Times. "The specific catalysts that we used have some drawbacks for commercial applications, so the next step will be to find catalysts with better long-term stability and even higher efficiency."
Hydrogen fuel cells produce power by causing hydrogen gas to react with oxygen gas, producing only water as a by-product. The appeal of this energy source is clear — but for that reaction to occur, a catalyst such as platinum must be present in the fuel cell.
Platinum is by far the most commonly used catalyst in current fuel cells. Given that platinum is a rare metal that generally costs over a thousand U.S. dollars per ounce, this is not so practical for commercial uses — though it was a hydrogen fuel cell with platinum that generated the onboard electrical power of the Apollo spacecraft, according to Gerken.
The new catalyst instead combines nonmetal molecules called nitroxyls and nitrogen oxides – which are far less expensive – to create a "molecular catalyst." The researchers showed "for the first time that molecular catalysts can approach the efficiency of platinum," Gerken said.
Still, he cautions that "the specific catalysts that we used have some drawbacks for commercial applications." Gerken and his colleagues plan to conduct further experiments to find catalysts with better long-term stability and even higher efficiency.
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