Science UCF's Hydrogen Fuel Cell Breakthrough

Published on March 17th, 2012 | by Charis Michelsen


The Trouble With Fuel Cells (and Some New Solutions)

UCF's Hydrogen Fuel Cell Breakthrough

Hydrogen fuel cells have quite a bit of potential as an alternative fuel source for quite a number of vehicles (the Mercedes fuel cell bus and the Mia Rox convertible van come to mind), but they’re not exactly cheap to make.  This is somewhat problematic.

It’s the Reaction That Counts

Within a standard fuel cell, a catalyst sets off a chemical reaction that converts the chemical energy stored within the hydrogen into electrical energy. The catalyst has to be something that both jump-starts the reaction and also doesn’t itself react with any of the chemicals resulting from said reaction. Since incredibly acidic solvents are part of that process, the catalyst has to be something that doesn’t corrode.

To be specific, only four elements are usable; platinum and iridium, which work quite well as catalysts, are both hard to find and super expensive (not so good on the large scale). Gold and palladium, which much easier to acquire, aren’t really that good at making the reaction go.

So What Do We Do?

Following the trend of great stuff coming out of university laboratories, the University of Central Florida has a research team which may have made something of a breakthrough – by layering gold and palladium with other elements, they’re better at getting the reaction started and keeping it going.

The basic structure, from the top down, goes something like this (in super thin layers): gold or palladium, something to enhance the energy conversion rate, tungsten for stability. The UCF team, led by Professor Sergey Stolbov, hasn’t said exactly what’s in the middle layer, but Stolbov was quite happy with the results of their experiments. “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.”

If Stolbov or someone else can figure out how to cleanly and inexpensively produce hydrogen fuel cells, the impact on green transportation would be huge. Of course, that’s the same issue facing pretty much every alternative fuel source, isn’t it?

Source: Science Daily | Image: Wikimedia Commons.

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About the Author

spent 7 years living in Germany and Japan, studying both languages extensively, doing translation and education with companies like Bosch, Nissan, Fuji Heavy, and others. Charis has a Bachelor of Science degree in biology and currently lives in Chicago, Illinois. She also believes that Janeway was the best Star Trek Captain.

  • NeilBlanchard

    Like any fuel or energy source or energy storage medium — it’s how much energy it takes to get it that matters.

    Hydrogen comes from making chlorine, but how much chlorine do we need? Hydrogen can come from steaming natural gas, but we better off just burning that natural gas directly, instead. Hydrogen can come from splitting water (electrolysis) but this takes about 3.5X more electricity than you end up with in hydrogen.

    Now there is the artificial leaves that MIT’s Daniel Nocera is building, and these may be better than any conventional way to get hydrogen. But that system is a closed system and so I doubt that using it in cars is feasible.

    Compressing hydrogen to fir enough into a car is non-trivial, and the 10,000PSI tank(s) are fairly bulky and quite dangerous, too. Add this to the expense of a fuel cell and you might as well have built an EV.

    Because a hydrogen fuel cell car is essentially and EV with a hydrogen powered range extender. It needs a small battery anyway — the Honda Clarity FCX has a 4kWh pack, I think?

    And lastly, as the author hints, fuel cells are incredibly expensive. And they don’t last very long, either.


    • T Adkins

      at this point we can begin to split hydrogen from urea which in found in sewage waste water going to treatment plants, any source of human or animal pee is useable and very much available. There was either an article about in on MIT tech review or in cleantechnica, but it uses less than the 3.5 to 1 energy to harvest the hydrogen.

      The harvesting would be well used with off peak power, especially from wind that would otherwise just be wasted.

      the platinum and iridium are the single most expensive part of the fuel cell, making the technology light enough and cold enough to be mobile is just rough, as they do currently run dangerously hot for something that would be in a car.

      The paranoia over hydrogen safety just seems over blown and over hyped just because of the Hindenburg . We have planes that crash with zero survivors fairly regularly: Hindenburg 36 persons died, 62 of 97 people survived (yeah it looks odd 1 guy on the ground not on the ship was killed), when just 4 year before a US Navy airship crash and lost 73 of 76 on board and it was a helium ship. Then you have the very scary hydrogen bomb which is a weapon but also a relatively complicated fission fusion thermo-nuclear device of which the world has enough of to destroy the world something like 15 times over the USA controls 10 of those times and well we have had those ‘hydrogen” devices for a number of years now with no real problems

    • T Adkins

      I forgot. I do agree that the time and money would be currently better spent on making EVs.

      Whatever happened to those EVs that were using a combination of capacitors and batteries?

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