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New catalyst could replace platinum to bring down the cost of microbial fuel cells

By

July 13, 2012

University of Wisconsin researchers discover nannorod catalyst that works as well as plati...

University of Wisconsin researchers discover nannorod catalyst that works as well as platinum in generating hydrogen at a fraction of the cost

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) researchers have identified an inexpensive nanorod catalyst with efficiencies rivaling that of platinum. Composed of nitrogen-enriched iron-carbon nanorods, the new catalyst holds the promise of cheaper, more efficient microbial fuel cells (MFCs) that generate their own hydrogen from waste water.

The hydrogen fuel cell is the holy grail of green energy. It burns hydrogen and gives off nothing but water. What could be more environmentally friendly than that? The problem is, hydrogen isn’t just lying about in the ground like oil or natural gas. True, it’s the most abundant element in the universe, but on Earth all of it is locked up in water and other chemicals. To be used as an energy source, the hydrogen has to be extracted and, unfortunately, the main source of most commercial hydrogen today comes from fossil fuels – which sort of defeats the purpose.

One alternative is microbial fuel cells, which use microorganisms to break down waste water into hydrogen and oxygen. That’s a step in the right direction, but there’s still a snag. To reach practical efficiency, an MFC needs a catalyst to goose along one of the chemical reactions involved in the process. That catalyst is usually platinum, which does its job very well, but is also extremely expensive at over US$1,200 per ounce. It also doesn’t help that platinum, like many catalysts, is susceptible to poisoning by impurities coating its surface, resulting in a very pricey replacement job.

In contrast, the UWM nanorod catalyst is composed of cheap, common elements. It consists of nitrogen bonded to the surface of a carbon rod with a core of iron carbide. According to the UWM researchers, this structure is optimal for electron transport. The upshot is that over three months of testing, the new catalyst demonstrated consistent performance that was superior to platinum and has every indication of being stable and scalable. More importantly, it’s much more economical. Platinum makes up 60 percent of the cost of an MFC and with the UMW catalyst only five percent the cost of a platinum catalyst, the savings are obvious.

According to nanorod creator Professor Junhong Chen,“fuel cells are capable of directly converting fuel into electricity. With fuel cells, electrical power from renewable energy sources can be delivered where and when required, cleanly, efficiently and sustainably.” With a view toward making the UMW catalyst practical, Professor Chen and his team are now concentrating on studying the exact characteristics of the catalyst and making it suitable for mass production.

Source: UWM

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past.   All articles by David Szondy
7 Comments

It is discoveries like this that have to be on the mind of the current energy industries especially the Frackers. The desire & demand to Drill Now, Drill Everywhere, is underpinned by an understanding that emerging renewable technology is capable of making traditional extraction search & despoil completely irrelevant. The only Big Question is how fast? The speed with which a discovery can go from being an interesting lab toy to an actual, scalable, affordable alternative is getting shorter. Furthermore, this speed is influenced to a great extent by web sites like Gizmag. The very visibility provided by Gizmag and other media channels serves to inspire, and lead, readers, researchers, governments, and investors.

StWils
16th July, 2012 @ 09:48 am PDT

This is exciting news! Imagine all the septic tanks, RV's and Boats that could be producing power by their waste water. Good job Chen and team! Get this out there.

garbage_in
16th July, 2012 @ 12:43 pm PDT

Innovations like this are needed to produce the hydrogen (cost effectively). Unfortunately, a rudimentary yield analysis of quantity of hydrogen produced by ALL the waste water in the ENTIRE United States will only generate %5 of our energy needs. Lets get our heads out of the sand, start building nuclear fission reactors again with thier inevitable replacements being nuclear fusion reactors. From this clean energy, we can generate the hydrogen in the quantities that we need to power vehicles. Its funny that, strategically, we are burning natural gas to make electricity and heat homes. You cant drive cars on coal or nuclear, so the natural gas and oil should fuel our engines while nuclear and coal fuel our utilities. If we cant act strategically to solve a problem, we will never succeed tactically. barbour@aai.textron.com

JBar
17th July, 2012 @ 11:30 am PDT

IN having followed aspects of renewable energy for years, I've come across the aspects of fuel cells and have seriously noted their byproduct from operating. That would be heat and water vapor. The water has been described as potable (drinkable) water.

I've been aware of how platinum is such a major (and expensive) factor in producing the fuel cell. The development described in the article could bring the "holy grail" of renewable energy down to earth.

Some fuel cell companies such as Ballard and Trulite will be very interested in UWM's discovery.

As for the hydrogen, fuel sources such as methane. butane and other natural gases can provide the fuel for the fuel cell that can function in place of hydrogen with the same byproduct of water and heat.

.

I've since sold my holdings in Ballard. Recently and well before reading this article I felt the need to buy holdings in Trulite. Now I might even add on to it.

Get this catalyst going. The fuel cell industry has been waiting for this discovery to get discovered for decades.

srmorb
17th July, 2012 @ 05:49 pm PDT

The replacement of 60% of the cost of a fuel cell that cost 1200.00 an ounce.

There is enough waste water around to apply the fuel cell world wide. One can see this energy source as a means to provide energy and clean water wherever it's needed.

Natural gasses such as methane butane, ethane and propane can be produced from waste sources such as garbage.

Remember Doc's DeLoren at the end of "Back To The Future"? Professor Chen and his team could bring the "Holy Grail" of renewable energy down to earth and without the need for roads.

srmorb
17th July, 2012 @ 06:10 pm PDT

Whining arguments that a given innovation can only fill in some modest, trivial,"X%" of a requirement, i.e., 5% of hydrogen grossly overlooks several elements. A) Estimates tend to be based upon factors relevant to Current Assumptions, not the changed future. B) All cities produce sewage, farms produce various agri wastes, etc. so cleanly processing wastes to produce some valuable output such as hydrogen, methane, ethane, pentane, heptane, propane, as well as potable water, are all inherently good outcomes. The exact outcome does not, well, exactly matter. Many solutions will fit into many settings. The exact mix only has to match exact local conditions.

As the telegraph was invented & deployed some people bitterly complained that we have ponies & boys to carry messages. Several decades later the same tiny little minds complained, still bitterly, about this nonsense of using telegraph wires to talk over.

I used to work for Xerox where today's tiny little minds could not understand the idea underpinning a "personal computer". Young Bill Gates & Steve Jobs did understand.

StWils
18th July, 2012 @ 09:33 am PDT

Excellent Point StWils. The application of fuel cell technology can provide solutions to various pollution and global warming issues, and provide a profitable means for green energy development. This discovery for fuel cell technology could provide more solutions to a number of problems than Dr. Chen and his team may realize.

Stephen Morbley
26th August, 2012 @ 06:24 pm PDT
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