New catalyst increases efficiency of fuel cells 6x

Posted by Wolfgang Gruener

Houston (TX) – Scientists from the University of Houston have developed an enhanced platinum catalyst for fuel cells that could become an important step on the path toward mass-market hydrogen automobiles.



Within a short period of time, alternative energy has become one of the most fascinating technology segments these days. Within the past months, we have reported about new ways to generate biofuels from wood chips or poultry litter, about fascinating hydrogen and hybrid vehicles and technologies to recharge hydrogen engines or about airplane manufacturers that are planning to power airplanes with biofuels.

Following hybrid cars, hydrogen fuel cell technology appears to be the next promising technology to alleviate the greenhouse gas pain on our planet. There are hydrogen cars on our streets today, but the BMW Hydrogen 7 and the Honda FCX aren’t available to the public and are given or leased under special terms to selected celebrities and families. It’s no secret that fuel cells are far from mass-production, but there are interesting developments that allow a glimpse into the future.

For example, scientists from the University of Houston believe they can address the problem of platinum being a virtually unaffordable material to be used in fuel cells. Platinum is currently the favored material to facilitate the reaction between oxygen and hydrogen in fuel cells. However, according to the University of Houston, 1 kW of power requires 0.5 to 0.8 grams of platinum. Costing about $1500 per ounce, a 100 kW engine - which is about what is used in compact car such as a Honda Civic or Ford Focus – would require a catalyst that could cost between $2300 and $3700 – more than the cost of a typical 100 kW combustion engine today.

The key to make the catalyst more affordable is either to find a cheaper, similarly efficient material or making platinum more efficient. The University of Houston chose the second variant and say that they have found a low platinum alloy that is pre-treated “in a special way to make it very active for the reaction of oxygen to water.” First tests have shown that the enhanced platinum in fact is up to six times more efficient than pure platinum as a catalyst.

“A more active catalyst means that we get more electricity, or energy, for the amount of platinum used and the time it’s used for. With a material four to six times more efficient, the cost of the catalyst has reached an important target set by industrial fuel cell developers and the U.S. Department of Energy,” said Peter Strasser, an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Houston.

Of course, there are questions how durable the new material is. Strasser is optimistic and said that the material is actually more durable but he concedes that “only longer-term testing can tell.”

Among others, manufacturers such as BMW, Chrysler, Honda, GM, Honda, Mercedes-Benz and Toyota reportedly are working on fuel cell technologies. While Mercedes-Benz showed the world’s first fuel cell vehicle already back in 1994, manufacturers currently do not expect hydrogen cars to become a commercial reality before 2020. BMW is currently testing about 100 hydrogen-powered 7-series limousines with celebrities around the world and Honda will be introducing its second generation FCX cars in 2008 with a Honda Accord-sized sedan that is powered by a 129 hp engine that will take the car to a maximum speed of just under 100 mph. The car can carry about 45 gallons of hydrogen, which is enough for about 350 miles, according to Honda. The production run of the new FCX will be limited to 80 vehicles initially.