Monday, April 25, 2011

Cheap Fuel Cells, A Very Real Possibility

Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory have developed a platinum-free catalyst in the cathode of a hydrogen fuel cell that uses carbon, iron and cobalt. This could significantly lower the cost of fuel cells in general. Up to this point hydrogen fuel cells used platinum, lots of it. And as you know, the metal is rare and frightfully expensive (according to the Wired article, Platinum goes for $1800 an ounce! ouch!). The price of platinum alone will put the cost of even a modest car at around $50,000.

Hydrogen fuel cells offer all the benefits of an electric vehicle without the drawbacks, mainly that of short range and long recharge times.

Conventional hydrogen fuel cells us the platinum as a catalyst. The new design uses a carbon-iron-cobalt catalyst to complete the conversion of hydrogen and oxygen into water. The other good news is that the carbon based fuel cell is on par for durability with it's platinum counterpart.

The team at Los Alamos National Laboratory are hesitant to quantify just how much cheaper the new fuel cell would be, not because they fear that they have over estimated the saving, but under-estimated it. Platinum is likely to become much more expensive after car manufacturers start installing platinum based cell in 2015, but since the elements for the new catalyst are readily available, it is likely that it will vastly lower the price.

Wired Fuel Cell article

Wikipedia article on fuel cells


Luke said...

Now if they can just figure out how to cheaply produce hydrogen. It takes more energy to produce hydrogen than you get back out of it.

Beam Me Up said...

Yep, proponents of the system like to hide that fact in a saying they all use. "lack of infrastructure" which is 100% truth. Lack of manufacture, lack of production, lack of distribution. Many early automobile builders wrestled with the same problem. There was no clear path for fuel choice. Up against the steam engine, the internal combustion engine was a plaything of the tinkerer. Even when choosing, gasoline was in disfavor because of its corrosive nature and bad habit of blowing up. Many thought that paraffin was a better choice. Hydrogen right now takes more electricity to produce than it can produce (remember gasoline was a waste product that could be had for the cost of hauling it away at first) and that along with a network of distribution has to be addressed, but it can't until there is a clear market for the product. Long way to go yet.

Blizno said...

Could these fuel cells run on gasoline, alcohol or natural gas?
They would be far more efficient than an internal combustion engine. This might make the vehicle fleet much more efficient and those fuels are readily available.

Beam Me Up said...

The thing to remember is that a fuel cell is more a fancy generator. Though it "breathes O2" after that the comparison falls down. On a spacecraft they hauled both of the gases, but on Earth we only need the one catalyst Hydrogen to combine with Oxygen to form h2o which in the process creates an electrical current. Nothing is burned. Hence the high efficiency and lack of pollutants. There are several alternatives, but the gases and the output can be noxious. Complex hydrocarbons are a completely different beastie. I am not strong in chemistry, but I can see instances where a reactive process could be started with the mentioned hydrocarbons. Could this generate a current? Doubtful? I suspect that the byproducts could easily be just as troublesome...