A Durable, Cheaper Alternative To Platinum For Hydrogen Fuel Cells Found


The Holy Grail of alternative fuels is the hydrogen fuel cell, a literal zero-emissions vehicle that requires expensive and rare platinum as a reaction catalyst. This makes hydrogen fuel cells incredibly costly, but researchers at Brown University have developed a cheaper and more durable alternative that is the best replacement for platinum yet.

With the help of his students, chemist Shouheng Sun developed this new catalyst. This alternative to platinum uses readily-available cobalt and graphene sheets, which is a single-atom thick layer of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb pattern. While the reaction took longer for the oxygen to separate the electrons from the hydrogen fuel, one the reaction gets going it is actually faster than platinum. This stripping of electrons produces the electric current needed to power the batteries of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. T

It is the best reaction developed so far of a non-platinum catalyst, and that has Sun hopeful that a cheaper alternative the the precious metal could soon be implemented. While that doesn’t solve the problem of high-pressure fuel tanks or a lack of infrastructure, it is the cost more than anything that is holding back hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Both Obama and Congress have shown renewed interest in hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, and automakers are aiming to start selling hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in the next four or five years.

While this isn’t the only project aimed at reducing hydrogen fuel cell costs, it is the best one developed so far. The cobalt-graphene catalyst isn’t quite ready for prime time  but preliminary tests are promising. In addition to being cheaper, the cobalt-graphene reaction is more durable as well. Sun found that after 17 hours of testing, the cobalt-graphene catalyst still operated at 70% its original capacity, while platinum had fallen to 60%.

Is this the big break hydrogen fuel cells need?

Source: Brown University

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A writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs, can be found wrenching or writing- or else, he's running, because he's one of those crazy people who gets enjoyment from running insane distances.
  • Tem

    Why have huge tanks to hold the hydrogen gas when it isn’t needed all at once? Can’t water, much easier to store, just be converted as needed or fill up a much smaller (cheaper and easier to design around) tank?
    I think such a system is not only safer but probably more reliable.

    • You have to understand that Hydrogen is used as an energy carrier. It takes energy to separate Hydrogen from Oxygen in water. Once it’s separated, that potential for Hydrogen to recombine with Oxygen is how energy is stored. Carrying around a tank of water stores no energy. Well none unless you fill up at the top of a hill and use the additional weight to get you down the hill.

  • “a literal zero-emissions vehicle”, not quite. Steam is emitted, HFCVs have a tailpipe, if there were no emissions, why would you need a tailpipe? BEVs are truly zero emissions. Also the vast majority of industrial Hydrogen is generated by steam reforming of natural gas, creating CO2 in it’s generation.

  • Toes

    The cost of platinum is the problem with HFCV’s. Eliminate this cost and the other problems can be engineered around. Steam reform can be replaced with watre-gas shift reaction https://engineering.purdue.edu/CCD/index.php?page=wgs presently and in the future with reform of 2nd gen ethanol (from waste instead of corn).

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