The Future of Fuel Cells?

12/20/2011 |

New fuel cell technology reduces the cost of the expensive catalyst element.

Credit: Adolfo Vera

A study published in the Journal of Physical Chemistry C. at Aalto University reveals an ALD method for manufacturing fuel cells that requires 60% less of the costly catalyst than current methods.  This is the first time that this kind of reduction has been achieved using commercially available materials.

Fuel cells present an attractive option to replace polluting combustion engines.  However, one of the more prohibitive aspects of widespread fuel cell adoption is the high cost of the catalyst needed to achieve the chemical processes.

The most commonly used fuel cells cover anode with expensive noble metal powder which reacts well with the fuel. By using the Aalto University researchers' ALD method, this cover can be much thinner and more even than before which lowers costs and increases quality.

With this study, researchers are developing better alcohol fuel cells using methanol or ethanol as their fuel. It is easier to handle and store alcohols than commonly used hydrogen. In alcohol fuel cells, it is also possible to use palladium as a catalyst.

The most common catalyst for hydrogen fuel cells is platinum, which is twice as expensive as palladium. This means that alcohol fuel cells and palladium will bring a more economical product to the market.

Fuel cells create electricity that produces very little or no pollution. They are highly efficient, making more energy and requiring less fuel than other devices of equal size. They are also quiet and require low maintenance, because there are no moving parts.

In the future, when production costs can be lowered, fuel cells are expected to power electric vehicles, replace batteries, and fulfill a variety of construction, building owner, and facility management needs.

Despite the high price, fuel cells have already been used to produce energy in isolated environments such as space crafts. Commercial production of these new fuel cells could start in 5-10 years.

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