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Power Science

New Catalyst May Be a Boost For Fuel Cells 130

Posted by Zonk
from the don't-forget-to-reverse-the-polarity dept.
Roland Piquepaille writes "Researchers at the University of Houston (UH) have developed a new platinum-based catalyst for fuel cells that is at least four times more efficient and cheaper than existing catalysts. This discovery in fuel cell research may ease reliance on gasoline. According to the researchers, the active phase of the catalyst consists of nanoparticles with a platinum-rich shell and a core made of an alloy of copper, cobalt, and platinum. But it's not enough for this new catalyst to be more efficient and cheaper than a pure platinum one. It also needs to work for a long time — say, the life of a car. So far, the preliminary results look promising, but longer-term testing is needed before this kind of fuel cells can be used to power your car."
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New Catalyst May Be a Boost For Fuel Cells

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  • but longer-term testing is needed before this kind of fuel cells can be used to power your car

    How many people here have hydrogen fuel cell cars?

    Wha? No one?

    Wonder why.

    Oh, yeah, 'cause I can't (yet) go down to my local car dealer and walk out with one. And I can't (yet) go to a 'fuel cell recharging station'. Nor can I (yet) purchase hydrogen fuel cells themselves.

    It's called economics people. The biggest problem delaying widespread adoption isn't cost or technology related, it boils down to macroeconomics. And there are too many very powerful people who stand to lose a whole lot of money if reliance on gasoline were to suddenly dissapear tomorrow.

    That's why you don't have a fuel cell vehicle.

    • by geekoid (135745)
      The money those people would make from gasoline would make a LOT more money with a fuel cell vehicles.

      Create a practical fuel cell vehicles, own the patents, use you influence to ban combustion vehicles.

      Welcome to trillion dollar land.

      • by daeg (828071)
        More like welcome to patents-bought-and-buried-by-US-automotive-land.
        • If the patents were bought and buried, there would be enormous political pressure to have them invalidated, or seized outright by the U.S. government. Furthermore, there would be no restraint on China, or Russia, or India, or any other country not to rip off the technology for the enormous gains available. This also would put a the U.S. at a huge economic disadvantage, and cause the patents to be invalidated, seized, or circumvented.

          Patents only last 20 years. Be patient and you can use the technology.

          It'

    • Re:Who's car? (Score:5, Informative)

      by Geoffrey.landis (926948) on Friday November 02, 2007 @04:54PM (#21217467) Homepage
      And, most notably, because fuel cells run on hydrogen, and you can't buy that at a gas station. Hydrogen is very difficult to store, because it has very low density and a high leak rate in most tanks.

      In fact, fuel cells can run on other materials, e.g., methane, but this is typically done by the simple trick of using a reformer to produce hydrogen from the methane, and running that hydrogen in a fuel cell. And this can be difficult if the source of the methane is less than extremely pure; in that a lot of common impurities can poison either the catalyst or the reformer.

      So, without a good means of storing hydrogen, it's not at all clear that advances in fuel cell technology are terribly useful.

      Still, gotta start somewhere...

      • by Kouroth (911586)
        Carbon nanotubes! (someday)
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by magisterx (865326)
        Yes, but going back to economics, the more effective and thus desirable the fuel cells are, the more incentive there is to do research on storing hydrogen.
      • I can make hydrogen at my house from either a) electricy and water or b) natural gas (all three are items I can pull from utilities at my home). I see this is making it much harder for a cartel to restrict my access to the substance.
        • by UltraAyla (828879)
          try making hydrogen in bulk (ie, enough to run your car on). Then, watch your energy bill skyrocket in your house and know that your money is going to cartels, but it's just the coal and natural gas ones this time. If you do that, it's probably cheaper and cleaner to buy gasoline.
      • by lgw (121541)
        The best way of storing hydogen is probably metal hydrides [wikipedia.org], and the practical metal hydrides require a platinum catalyst, so advances in platinum catalyst technology are, well, terribly useful.
      • by x1n933k (966581)
        Start somewhere like helping people understand the redundancy of Automobiles? Every day (while on a light rail train that travels from city center to rural and sub-urban areas) I watch a chain of thousands of cars that will take close to an hour to travel the distance I'll cover in 15 minutes. Most of these people are alone in their vehicles.

        I understand that there is certainly freedom in having personal vehicles however cars and trucks are REALLY inefficient and a waste of money, materials and energy. C
      • Hydrogen is difficult to store as methane, but if you add a few more carbon atoms, you get materials that are in liquid phase at practical storage temperatures.
  • by SolusSD (680489) on Friday November 02, 2007 @04:48PM (#21217377) Homepage
    This technology has been 15 to 20 years off for the past 10 years. Improvements in battery technology are here, and cost would come down (much more quickly than fuel cells) if more companies jumped on the electric car bandwagon. We need more companies like this: www.teslamotors.com
    • by evanbd (210358) on Friday November 02, 2007 @05:01PM (#21217539)

      For now, it's batteries. But in the not too distant future, it may well be supercapacitors. Supercapacitors now are about a factor of ten away from lithium-ion batteries; improvements that are currently in labs appear to be able to remove most or all of that gap. Right now supercapacitors are expensive, but once the market starts growing they should come down in price. There are relatively fundamental limits to how much better traditional batteries can get in terms of capacity, but the apparent limits on supercapacitors are phenomenal. It might be 10 years before they see serious use, but I imagine small-scale use will be here sooner than that, especially if the rumors [arstechnica.com] are to be believed.

      Fuel cells are interesting, but I think that direct electrical storage through batteries and later supercapacitors is more likely to actually work out.

      • by SolusSD (680489)
        yes supercapacitors are a great (future) option too. the real advantage to forgoing the entire "hydrogen infrustructure" is you can store electricity however you want and you can generate it using several means. Electric cars are effectively "future proof". We can use everything from fossil fuels, to solar power, to antimatter to generate electricity!
      • But how they will handle stealing of energy then? I can cut a wire anywhere in the wild and steal millions of Euros worth of energy into my suitcase (or car).
      • by deander2 (26173) *
        > Fuel cells are interesting, but I think that direct electrical storage through batteries and later supercapacitors is more likely to actually work out.

        you know that batteries store electricity chemically, right? same as a closed-cycle fuel cell system would. only caps store the electrical charge directly.
        • by evanbd (210358)

          Technically true, but beside the point. People who talk about fuel cells for cars aren't talking about a closed system. They're talking about distributing fuel and using atmospheric oxygen, and exhausting the waste products. Part of the reason for this, I imagine, is that closed cycle fuel cell system efficiencies are poor compared to batteries and capacitors. So fuel cells should be lumped in with gasoline engines, diesel engines, non-plugin hybrids, etc. in that comparison.

          From a public policy stand

      • How about HTSC ring for enery storage?
        http://www.imagesco.com/articles/superconductors/superconductor-energy-storage-ring.html [imagesco.com]
        Years ago there was some interest in small strong fly wheels for energy storage.
      • by putaro (235078)
        The next problem with batteries is going to be charging them. Having to wait overnight before your car has more zoom-zoom doesn't really cut it. A gallon of gasoline is about 33 kWh, so if you have a car with a 10 gallon tank and you fill it up in 2 minutes, that means that you are moving 330 kWh in .03 hours, so your instantaneous power would need to be 11 mega watts. That's a lot of juice and even if you have an ultracapacitor at the station to average out the flow from the grid, the cables you'd need
        • by Jazu (215175)
          The only speed limit on charging capacitors is how many amps you can cram into the thing without melting any wires.
          • by putaro (235078)

            The only speed limit on charging capacitors is how many amps you can cram into the thing without melting any wires.
            That's kind of the point. 13MW is a lot of power to put through just about anything. To do it in a manner that idiots (think about who drives and who works at gas stations) can safely connect and disconnect the cables and with lots of cycles per day is going to take a lot of hard engineering.
        • by evilviper (135110)

          A gallon of gasoline is about 33 kWh,

          Yes, but 3/4 of the energy is wasted by the ICE, so you can divide that by 4 to figure out how much a battery or capacitor-powered electric vehicle will need.

          Your problem is that you are looking at a square peg, and assuming it has to go in that round hole.

          if you have a car with a 10 gallon tank and you fill it up in 2 minutes

          How fast a car CAN be fueled-up is irrelevant to anyone outside of NASCAR. Refueling electric cars is quite simple, you just need to get your mind

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by 2ms (232331)
      Perhaps you aren't aware that the first production fuel cell vehicle is going to be available to the public this coming January? Yes, diesels are the most efficient method right now and more people should be driving them. But this fuel cell Equinox is extremely impressive. Has the interior room of a normal small SUV, and of course the zero emmissions etc.

      Also, the Tesla car is hardly anything remarkable. It costs $100,000 and is basically just a Lotus Elise/Opel Speedster with an electric drive-train re
      • by 2ms (232331)
        Here's the linkage: Chevy fuel cell Equinox [autoweek.com]
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by TooMuchToDo (882796)
        You have fun trying to get hydrogen to fuel your "production fuel cell car." I, on the other hand, am going to take my 2008 Tesla Roadster (already have my production number) that I can charge anywhere and enjoy my low emission driving (in northern Illinois, all power provided is generated at nuclear power plants via ComEd). And yes, nuclear power is cleaner than coal generation. Google for it.
        • by 2ms (232331)
          No need to take offense and tell me to google things! You are agreeing with me -- EVs are the ultimate future and we need nuclear power instead of coal. Fuel cells for the electricity will be even better.

          That's great you have a Tesla, I'm just saying it's nothing like a mass production car -- it's a Lotus Elise/Opel Speedster with the drive-line swapped for electric and new bodywork. That's a terrific chassis and I hear the batteries are the newest and the propulsion system great too.
          • I didn't mean to come off brash, and I apologize if I did so. My only contention is with your assertion that it's not a mass production car. Tesla Motors has already sold the first 100 cars, and I anticipate they'll sell the next 500-1000 easily. That's what it takes to get to mass production. Slowly, the cost will come down, and you'll be able to get a Tesla Roadster one day for (I hope) $30,000USD.

            I have a big problem with fuel cells because of the need for a hydrogen infrastructure (which is never goin

          • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

            by loshwomp (468955)
            Disclaimer: IAAEVE. (I am an electric vehicle engineer.)

            Fuel cells for the electricity will be even better.

            Fuel cells will make sense the day we have so much renewable or other "clean" energy that we can afford to throw 80% of it away on the hopelessly inefficient Water electrolysis->Hydrogen->Fuel Cell cycle. Right now qualified renewables in the USA are some fraction of 1%. When do you anticipate we'll hit the 500% mark so that 4/5ths of it can be discarded to make hydrogen?

            On the other hand, ba
            • "but platinum (for your fuel cells) is not exactly going to get cheaper in quantity."

              Agree all other points, but fuel cell cars won't need a catalytic converter to control emissions. I wouldn't anticipate the price of platinum to vary much unless you need more platinum for a fuel cell as you do for the already mandatory emissions control devices.
              • by loshwomp (468955)
                I wouldn't anticipate the price of platinum to vary much unless you need more platinum for a fuel cell as you do for the already mandatory emissions control devices.

                You do. Fuel cells require on the order of 20x the platinum.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Snorpus (566772)
        Are you sure that, per kWH, a modern IC automotive engine is cleaner than a modern coal-fired plant?
        • by CastrTroy (595695)
          How modern are we talking here when comparing. If you go out and buy a new car with an IC engine, it's going to have 2008 levels of technology for making low emissions. If you got electric, depending on where you live, you could have a very old coal power plant powering that car.
    • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      I think you're forgetting one little problem: Where the hell are we going to get enough elemental hydrogen to make fuel cells feasible? The scale of that problem alone is rough, and thanks to the laws of thermodynamics can't be magically solved by burning our remaining fossil fuels making hydrogen. Then there's storing all that hydrogen long term. Then distributing all of it somehow.

      Even if fuel cell technology were "complete" at this point, it's not a silver bullet. There's other problems to solve first, a
    • by spectro (80839)
      IMHO what we need is to stimulate human desire to win: An X-prize like challenge for the first electric car to go 500 or 1000, etc miles in a single charge or an electrical car race, something like Indianapolis e500 (electrical 500 miles). Maybe e-Nascar or Formula E
    • They suck for cars. Period. More efficient than gas, sure. But:
       
      1. Requires a complete infrastructure rework, just like electric would.
      2. Still lower efficiency.
      3. Harder to implement in a vehicle, requiring much more exotic material for efficient energy storage vs. battery tech we already have.
       
      I just want an electric car. Ok, actually, I want an affordable (sub-40k) Tesla Roadster-style car, but with four seats and a trunk.
    • by cyfer2000 (548592)
      I believe biofuel (diesel and alcohol), battery/super capacitor and fuel cell will all get used in the (future) vehicles for some time at some degree. All of them have their own pros and cons. (You may figure out that all of them suck and all of them are promising at some points.) Technology will evolve and products will compete together. If we jump into a conclusion too fast, we are going to make mistakes. This is not a political or religion movement. It's not black and white. It's a war of green, war
      • by lgw (121541)
        Ethanol is just a corn subsidy and takes more energy to farm than we get out of it. Bio-diesel makes good sense if you already generate bio waste that you're paying to dispose of, but simply doesn't scale.

        Cars will move off of oil when someone figures out a better energy storage device than anyone has yet. Chemical batteries just don't provide an energy density acceptable to most consumers. Other forms of high-density energy storage are far more dangerous than gasoline, and so are impractical for cars.
        • by mOdQuArK! (87332)

          Ethanol is just a corn subsidy

          To be more precise, corn is one not-very-efficient choice of many possible biosources for ethanol. It's just a highly subsidized one.

          Bio-diesel makes good sense if you already generate bio waste that you're paying to dispose of, but simply doesn't scale.

          I don't think that's exactly true (especially if you're talking about something like algae farming), but even if it were - have you looked up exactly how much biowaste our society generates?

          Cars will move off of oil when som

        • by compro01 (777531)
          ethanol is a very good fuel if you use it right. using forced induction (super/turbocharger) allows one to easily match or even exceed the fuel economy of gasoline, but with more engine power output, due to ethanol's crazy octane (about 130, vs. bog-standard 87 gas or premium 96. if it can work for indy cars, it can work for the rest of us.). it may contain less absolute energy than gas, but which is more? 50% of 100 or 70% of 80?

          though i agree corn is a lousy source of it. sugarcane/beet is a much bett
        • by cyfer2000 (548592)

          The real alcohol production in my mind is either from sugar cane or from cellulose [wikipedia.org], which is still relatively unknown and facing a lot of uncertainty.

          The problem hindering all bio fuel is the low energy transform efficiency of photo synthesis reaction, the theoretical efficiency of photo synthesis is somewhere around 6~8%, because a lot of energy has been used to produce cellulose, instead of things we can use. The real efficiency is much lower than 1%. With requirement of sunshine, water, land and fert

    • by yusing (216625)
      I've liked the idea of electric vehicles for a long time, but not without new generating capacity. Conventional thermal energy is not very efficient. And, while it'd be nice, it may be a while before people start dropping square-kilometers of solar capacity around the countryside.

      Too, massive growth in the use of large banks of batteries will lead to new problems with heavy-metal mining and disposal.

      So when very high efficiency fuel-cells (particularly a factor of ten cheaper) show up, they'd probably be pr
  • Summary (Score:5, Insightful)

    by should_be_linear (779431) on Friday November 02, 2007 @04:50PM (#21217405)
    I extracted 4 key words from TFA : ...may...may...promising...testing.
  • It's a good thing that is is made of something pricey like platinum instead of cheap and abundant like getting power from salt water or something silly. otherwise we may have a hard time justifying the high cost we wan to charge our consumers!
    • Please, do tell, how do you get cheap and abundant power from salt water? Make sure you don't cheat by adding in some other compounds that are consumed stoichiometrically.

      (Advance warning: I am a professional chemist.)
  • Platinum-Rich (Score:2, Informative)

    by imstanny (722685)
    Even if this is a proven method, there's also a cost obstacle to overcome here. Platinum is already used in catalytic converters and those of us who, unfortunately, have a ULEV (Ultra Low Emission Vehicle) Honda Accord ought to know that their converter costs an arm and a leg. FYI: A retail catalytic converter for a ULEV car costs ~$1,800! (It has high platinum density) I managed to get an after market part for $650, and even then that's about twice what you would pay for a normal converter. The point is, t
    • You mean, lithium-ion, right?
    • by Ungrounded Lightning (62228) on Friday November 02, 2007 @05:45PM (#21218059) Journal
      Even if this is a proven method, there's also a cost obstacle to overcome here.

      The point of the article is that
        - the previous Platinum-based catalyst was about 6 times too expensive to be practical for an automotive application, while
        - this one is more than a factor of 6 cheaper, putting it in the running.

      In other words they've crossed the affrordability threshold.

      If the lifetime testing works out, no roadblocks show up, and something better doesn't come along and obsolete it before it gets deployed, expect this one to actually show up in cars.
  • by Pedrito (94783) on Friday November 02, 2007 @05:03PM (#21217573) Homepage
    Some researchers at Purdue [purdue.edu] came up with a technique back in May that's probably better than this. It uses a Gallium/Aluminum alloy. Aluminum, when exposed to water, produces hydrogen and aluminum oxide. Normally aluminum produces an aluminum oxide layer immediately on any exposed surface, preventing further reaction. This alloy doesn't have that problem. It's unclear precisely how much platinum they require for this process from the news release, but Platinum is far more expensive than either Aluminum or Gallium. Another advantage is that the Gallium is unaffected and can be reused, while the aluminum oxide can readily be converted back to pure aluminum through Fused Salt Electrolysis. The cost of aluminum would make the cost of using this more than the equivalent of the current ~$3/gallon of gas. If there were enough demand and, using the recycling method, the cost of aluminum could be brought down to make it cheaper than the current cost of gas, however. Of course, electricity for the electrolysis has its own environmental impact...
  • I thought they had been using platinum in fuel cells for a while now? amirite?
  • Am I the only one that saw the title and wondered what video card drivers had to do with fuel cell technology?

    I think I need to get out more =/

    Aikon-

    • You were not the only one who thought that...

      But the link betwee a GPU and fuel cells? Has it something to do with high power cosumption of the high end GPUs ;)
  • by Doc Ruby (173196) on Friday November 02, 2007 @06:15PM (#21218391) Homepage Journal
    The breakthrough in fuel cells will come when they can deliver 50% or better efficiency from gasoline. Then the dinosaur egg will finally have hatched a chicken, which can then lay a chicken egg: other fuels that fuel cells, and their dependent motors/transmissions/etc, can use. That is a much more likely transition scenario than getting the fuels first, or switching to fuel cells and their fuels simultaneously.
  • Bah (Score:3, Insightful)

    by tsotha (720379) on Friday November 02, 2007 @08:17PM (#21219763)

    This discovery in fuel cell research may ease reliance on gasoline.

    I don't see how this will do anything to ease the reliance on gasoline. A fuel cell isn't a power source per se - the power still comes from whatever you're feeding it. Whatever you're using as a fuel still requires a power input. This won't do a damn thing for energy independence unless it's coupled with a massive nuclear power plant construction program. And don't go on about wind and solar - even maxed out they barely make a dent.

    When that nuclear program finally starts, it's gonna be another decade, at least, before we see any benefit. So assuming they get whatever kinks they have out of the process today, and assuming auto manufacturers rush headlong into production (five year delay), and assuming ignorant opposition ot nuclear power can be overcome in those five years, the earliest this will have any displacement effect on oil is fifteen years from now.

    Which, in all practicality, means we'll all be dead before any of this happens.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by FooAtWFU (699187)

      This discovery in fuel cell research may ease reliance on gasoline.

      I don't see how this will do anything to ease the reliance on gasoline. A fuel cell isn't a power source per se - the power still comes from whatever you're feeding it. Whatever you're using as a fuel still requires a power input. This won't do a damn thing for energy independence unless it's coupled with a massive nuclear power plant construction program.

      How about a coal power plant program? I mean, I realize your agenda is clearly "clean power", but you've slipped into another sometimes-overlapping agenda (really the "foreign oil dependence" one), and this really would make a change in that one. I think you'll find that if you can surpress the need to sound off on your personal set of agendas, you might find yourself able to better engage in thoughtful sociopolitical discourse.

      • by tsotha (720379)
        If we're not going to worry about the "cleanliness" of our power, there's no reason to use fuel cells. We can simply make synthetic gas from the coal and pour it into our existing cars. And the "agenda" I slipped into was the one of the post I was responding to - did you notice the quote? Really, your comment makes no sense.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by ChrisMaple (607946)
      If the catalyst is useful in a gasoline -> reformer -> hydrogen -> fuel cell -> electricity -> electric motor -> power to the wheel system, and that system is more efficient than a gasoline IC engine, it eases the reliance on gasoline. Q.E.D..
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by at_18 (224304)
      And don't go on about wind and solar - even maxed out they barely make a dent.

      The available solar energy on Earth more than 5,000 times [wikipedia.org] the total amount of energy used by all mankind. It's a pretty big dent. Oh, and wind energy is "only" 200 times.
      • by tsotha (720379)

        Even assuming what you say is true, it's entirely irrelevant. We can't exploit either of those resources, economically, to the degree necessary to fuel our economy. Maybe in fifty years, or one hundred. But for now, it just ain't happening. So let's deal with the options on the table, and leave off the unobtainium discussions. We can barely make wind and solar break even from an energy perspective, let alone cost.

  • into a Stirling or steam engine, and make present day tech much more efficient.
  • What we need is a web site that tracks all the "announcements" of impending magical technical solutions that never transpire and why they never transpired.

    I'm jaded yes, we hear announcements all the time about stuff but I never see anything I can buy. It would REALLY interest me.

    Basically the web site (and research team) should do something like go back to 1993, read up on the announcements and discoveries predicted to change our lives and then find out what happened to them. I'd buy that info for a dollar
    • Documenting, as the invevitable next step, every impractical wish list available (i.e. Flying Car, Regional Heliocopter Airports, internet connected toasters, space elevators, and hydrogen fuel cell cars): Popular Mechanics [popularmechanics.com] and Popular Science [popsci.com].

      I'm really not that cynical, and I like the magazines, but reporting on likely, sensical new technology is not their forte (or mission).
  • The cheapest way to extract hydrogen from water, imho, will be to use John Kanzius radio wave machine [wordpress.com] which--judging by related patents-- immitates the resonance of platinum so as to act as an artificial catalyst.

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