Putting Fuel Cell Cost On The Chopping Block

Hydrogen fuel cells can provide power to off-grid areas, power vehicles and even generate baseload power for the electric grid. They are also silent and emissions-free. However, one of the hurdles to widespread fuel cell adoption is the high price of platinum – the most common catalyst used to speed up the chemical process in hydrogen fuel cells. Thanks to recent research at Aalto University in Finland, this could soon change. The same research institution that brought us solar cells made from blueberries has now developed a manufacturing method for fuel cells that could significantly lower their price.

In the past, fuel cell manufacturers have applied the catalyst by covering the fuel cell anode with a metal powder, such as platinum, that reacts well with the fuel. Aalto researchers used a technique called atomic layer deposition (ALD) to prepare a metal nanoparticle catalyst for fuel cells. According to Aalto, the ALD method uses 60 percent less catalyst material than current manufacturing methods, and enables the anode cover to be applied more thinly and evenly. This lowers the cost and increases the quality of the catalyst reaction.

fuel-cell-catalyst

image via Aalto University

In addition, the Aalto researchers performed preliminary tests using methanol- and ethanol-based fuel cells and palladium as a catalyst. These materials are easier to handle and store than hydrogen, and much cheaper than platinum. The study was published in the Journal of Physical Chemistry C.

The research team hopes that this method could be used in commercial production of lower-cost fuel cells within five to 10 years. The research was funded by Aalto University’s MIDE research program and the Academy of Finland.

Lauren Craig is a writer and consultant living in Seattle, WA. She holds an M.S. in International Development from Tulane University, and is co-founder of Sustainable Systems Integrators, LLC., an employee-owned solar energy design and installation firm in New Orleans, LA. She is also certified in PV design and installation by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP).