Friday, April 03, 2009

Fuel Cells Are Looking Better, Closer in Time

By substituting low cost catalyst based on iron in place of precious metal Platinum -- which costs between $1,000 and $2,000 an ounce (and rising) -- researchers in Quebec have brought the broad-scale adoption of the fuel cell powerplant much closer to the present time.
The improvement, reported in the latest issue of the journal Science, is "quite surprising," says Radoslav Adzic, a senior chemist at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, NY, who also develops catalysts for fuel cells. The new material meets a benchmark for hydrogen fuel cells set five years ago that "we thought nobody would ever meet," adds Hubert Gasteiger, a visiting professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. "For the very first time, a nonprecious metal catalyst makes sense."

The INRS researchers' key insight was finding a way to increase the number of active catalytic sites within the material--with more sites for chemical reactions, the overall rate of the reactions in the material increases. In previous work, the researchers had shown that heating carbon black (a powdery form of carbon similar to graphite) to high temperatures in the presence of ammonia and iron acetate created gaps in the carbon that are just a few atoms wide. Nitrogen atoms bind to opposite sides of these tiny gaps, and an iron ion bridges these atoms, forming an active site for catalysis. _TechReview
Iron is cheap and plentiful, whereas platinum is more expensive than gold and mined mostly in South Africa and Russia -- two increasingly authoritarian and unstable one-party quasi dictatorships.

The future of the automobile powerplant has not been decided, but given the potentially high efficiencies of fuel cells compared to internal combustion engines (ICE), it is likely that the fuel cell will begin to displace the ICE as the center of automobile power systems within 10 years.

Fuel cells can utilise liquid fuels such as methanol and ethanol, using a reformer to extract protons. There is also the potential for use of other fuels other than hydrogen for fuel cells. Biofuels and fuel cells are likely to enjoy a very close and prosperous future.



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