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.

Charis Michelsen

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.