Despite the many obstacles, the potential success of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles is enough that researchers just can’t give up on making them a reality. The most apparent roadblocks are—as is true for most new technologies—cost and efficiency. Now, researchers from the University of Central Florida (UCF) believe they could have a fuel cell solution that works on both counts.
Hydrogen fuel cells are rather demanding, requiring a catalyst that can withstand the highly acidic solvents that are necessary for the reaction that turns hydrogen into electricity. The only elements that can do this are platinum and iridium, which are both rare and expensive, or gold and palladium, which don’t handle the process quite as well.
Creative thinking led the UCF team to lower the cost and makes fuel cells more effective by creating a catalyst with a layered structure of gold, palladium and other less-expensive elements. The top layer is palladium or gold, followed by a layer that improves the energy conversion rate while protecting the catalyst from the acidity. The bottom layer is inexpensive tungsten which also helps keep the catalyst stable.
This new structure not only costs less, but also converts more energy than the precious metals would on their own, the researchers say.
While more experiments are necessary to test their predictions, the Florida scientists are optimistic about their approach to a cheaper, more effective fuel cell, and are already discussing the potential for large-scale application with the U.S. Department of Energy.
“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,” UCF Professor Sergey Stolbov said in a statement.