Platinum Free Fuel Cell

In a bid to make hybrid cars more reliable and cheaper to manufacture, scientists from Monash University have designed an electrically-generated fuel cell. This revolutionary design utilizes the properties of a popular high tech outdoor and sporting clothing material called Gore-Tex. The specially coated Gore-Tex, also termed “air- electrode”, is produced by depositing a fine layer of highly conductive plastic with a 0.4 micron thickness, which is about 100 times thinner than human hair, on to the breathable fabric. The conductive plastic acts as both the fuel cell electrode and catalyst.

Dr. Bjorn Winther-Jensen
Dr. Bjorn Winther-Jensen
(credit: University of Wollongong)

Winther-Jensen from Monash University said that just as Gore-Tex had transformed the outdoor clothing industry; it could hold similar potential for motorists. The material is also known to “breathe” oxygen by allowing waste vapour to freely pass through. Utilizing this in the context of fuel cell, Winter-Jensen said that Gore-Tex enables oxygen to circulate into the fuel cell and to enable contact with the conductive plastic.

”The discovery was probably the most important development in fuel cell technology in the last 20 years” said Professor Doug MacFarlane from the Australian Centre for Electromaterials Science (ACES) at Monash University. In current hybrid vehicles the very expensive platinum is used as a catalyst and is currently central to the manufacturing process.

This may all change because the design of new fuel cell removes the need for platinum, thus leading to cheaper benefits for the motoring industry and for motorists. “Our reliance on platinum is making the likelihood of using fuel cells in everyday passenger cars, increasingly improbable,” explained Professor MacFarlane.

The major shortcoming associated with platinum is that the cost of using it in a 100kW electric engine is more than the total cost of a 100kW gasoline engine. Furthermore only 3 million 100kW vehicles can be manufactured using the present annual world production of platinum, which is enough for less than one-twentieth of the present annual global production of vehicles.

The new cathode made of conducting polymer would replace a costly platinum cathode (Source: Julie Fraser/Monash University)
The new cathode made of conducting
polymer would replace a costly platinum
cathode (Source: Julie Fraser/Monash University)

Monash University’s new fuel cell design was tested using hydrogen as the fuel source for up to 1500 hours continuously. During the testing, there were no signs of material degradation or deterioration in performance, unlike conventional fuel cells where the platinum catalyst is gradually poisoned by minute quantities of carbon monoxide that are always detectable in exhausts from petrol engines, ultimately damaging the cell. The findings verify that electrodes are not affected by carbon monoxide emissions in the way platinum is. The oxygen exchange rates are akin with platinum-catalysed electrodes of the similar geometry.

Professor Maria Forsyth, Director of ACES at Monash said, “The important point to stress is that the team has come up with an alternative fuel cell design that is more economical, more easily sourced, outlasts platinum cells and is just as effective.”

TFOT has previously written about Super Fuel Cells where the power output of a certain type of fuel cell can be increases by more than 50 percent. You can also check out our article about fuel cells for helicopters where a fuel cell that weighs only 30 grams and has an output of 12 watts could make the idea of a fuel-cell-based unmanned helicopter a reality. Another recent TFOT fuel cell related story covers the first hydrogen powered manned flight where Boeing flew a manned airplane powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

Additional information on these new fuel cells can be obtained at Monash University’s website.

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