Hydrogen-based fuel cells have been around a long time, but they have been too expensive for all but the most exotic applications because they use platinum as a catalyst. That could change, thanks to an advance made by scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory. They have come up with a nonprecious-metal catalyst for the part of the fuel cell that reacts with oxygen.
The new catalyst consists of carbon, iron, and cobalt, and fuel cells using it displayed high power output, good efficiency, and promising longevity. These fuel cells also generated currents comparable to the output of platinum-based fuel cells and held up favorably when cycled on and off, an exercise that quickly damages many other catalysts. Moreover, fuel cells with the new catalyst almost completely converted all the hydrogen and oxygen into water, rather than producing large amounts of hydrogen peroxide. Incomplete conversion can reduce power output by up to 50% and destroy the fuel cell membranes.
“For all intents and purposes, this is a zero-cost catalyst in comparison with platinum, so it directly addresses one of the main barriers to hydrogen fuel cells,” says Piotr Zelanay, a scientist who helped develop the catalyst.