A team from the University of Central Florida reckons it's found a way to make hydrogen fuel cells much cheaper to build - and more efficient.
Most elements can't endure the highly acidic solvents present in the reaction that converts hydrogen's chemical energy into electrical power. Only four elements can cope – platinum, iridium, gold and palladium.
Gold and palladium don't do well with the chemical reaction, though, and iridium and platinum are rare and expensive; platinum's generally used, but bumps up the cost of the cells considerably.
The Florida team decided to concentrate on making gold and palladium better suited for the reaction by layering them with cheaper and more abundant elements.
The outer monoatomic layer is either palladium or gold. Below it is a layer that enhances the energy conversion rate and also protects the catalyst from the acidic environment. These two layers sit on an inexpensive substrate, tungsten, which makes the catalyst more stable.
"We are very encouraged by our first attempts that suggest that we can create two cost-effective and highly active palladium- and gold-based catalysts –for hydrogen fuel cells, a clean and renewable energy source," says UCF professor Sergey Stolbov.
By creating these structures, more energy is converted, and because the more expensive and rare metals are not used, the cost could be significantly less.
Stolbov's already working with a group within the US Department of Energy to see whether the results can be duplicated and used on a large scale.