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Alternative tech could lead to cheaper fuel cells


December 21, 2011

Finnish researchers have developed a method of fuel cell production, that uses 60 percent less of the costly catalyst material

Finnish researchers have developed a method of fuel cell production, that uses 60 percent less of the costly catalyst material

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While fuel cells show a lot of promise for cleanly powering things such as electric cars, there's something keeping them from being more widely used than they currently are - they can be expensive. More specifically, the catalysts used to accelerate the chemical processes within them tend to be pricey. Work being done at Finland's Aalto University, however, should help bring down the cost of fuel cells. Using atomic layer deposition (ALD), researchers there are making cells that incorporate 60 percent less catalyst material than would normally be required.

In a fuel cell, the anode is coated with noble metal powder, which serves as a catalyst by reacting with the fuel. Using their ALD method, the scientists were able to use less powder to create a coating that was thinner and more even than conventional coatings, yet just as effective.

While fuel cells can be made with a number of different fuels (even including microbes or coal) and noble metals, the Aalto team is now developing low-cost cells that will run on methanol or ethanol, with a palladium catalyst. Probably the most well-known fuel cells are those that run on hydrogen, but such cells require a catalyst made of platinum, which is twice the price of palladium.

A paper on the research was recently published in the Journal of Physical Chemistry C.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

I believe Palladium is very expensive, and who has most palladium. Russia and they are not going to ship it to anybody without paying a pretty penny.

S Michael

Palladium has been used before and it really isn\'t that much cheaper than platinum. If the cost reduction is by reducing the amount of catalysts it helps but in itself will not be a large decrease in overall cost. On the fuel cells I worked on (also ethanol/methanol fuelled) we used a non noble metal catalyst combination. That is substantially cheaper ie pennies per slice verses $10 or so for catalysts. That actual then changes the most expensive items from the catalysts to the shells or structure. We gave up some efficiency but drastically lowered cost. As long as the catalysts are noble metal based the price of celsl will remain high and the adoption or use of them will never be that great as they will be in effect a niche item. Really cool to play with but expensive to buy. When they are at the price of batteries (we came close) then they will be everywhere and used by everyone.

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