Vitamin B12 could replace platinum as a catalyst in fuel cells, and that could lead to a new generation of emission free, low cost hydrogen fuel cells for cars and other vehicles. Aside from helping to reduce the use of petroleum-fueled vehicles, cheaper fuel cells could also help ease some of the pressure to drill for more natural gas. Natural gas is emerging as a low-emission alternative fuel for vehicles, but given the environmental risks and community disruption caused by fracking (a method of drilling that involves pumping chemicals underground), natural gas is not the kind of long term, sustainable solution that fuel cells have the potential to offer.
The Search for Low Cost Fuel Cells
Part of the reason why fuel cells for vehicles are so expensive is that platinum has been the material of choice for spurring the reaction that generates electricity. Platinum is a highly efficient catalyst but it is also highly expense, so the hunt has been on to find cheaper alternatives.
The Vitamin B12 Solution
According to writer Ross McLaren at the Royal Chemical Society, a team of researchers from the Institute of Atomic and Molecular Science in Taipei have developed a catalyst that uses one of the cheapest and most abundant materials on Earth, carbon. They loaded it up with vitamin B12 and found that, while not as efficient as platinum, the carbon-B12 combination performed well enough to show some promise. In other words, don’t hold your breath – a high performance B12 fuel cell could be years away – but the research is heading in the right direction.
Vitamin B12 – No, Really
If the B12 angle sounds like a come-on, guess again. Vitamin B12 is becoming an important tool in the sustainability toolkit, one example being its development as a booster for bacteria-based pollution cleanups involving toxic chemicals like TCE and perc.
Other Roads to Low Cost Fuel Cells
Aside from developing cheaper catalysts, the search for low cost fuel cells is taking many paths. A team at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is using nanocrystals of titanium dioxide (basically, white paint) to help lower the cost of producing hydrogen from water, and Oxford University is looking into formic acid, an organic acid found in bee and ant venom, to create miniature pocket-sized fuel cells.
About that Fracking…
As for fracking, the practice has been linked to contamination in drinking water wells, but until now it was largely confined to remote underpopulated areas and nobody paid much attention beyond the affected communities. Now due to rising demand for natural gas it is intruding into more densely populated states including Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey, where water supplies for millions are at stake.
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Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.