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Clean Transport platinum catalysf for fuel cell electric vehicles

Published on July 25th, 2013 | by Tina Casey


Tesla Teases On EV Quick Charge But Fuel Cells Could Deliver The Goods

The brilliant PR machine of Tesla Motors was on display again last week, when chief technology officer JB Straubel predicted a five-minute charge in the company’s future. That’s all well and good, whenever it happens, but meanwhile fuel cell electric vehicles already offer a super quick, minutes-long charging cycle. So, why aren’t we all tooling around on our FCEVs right now? Cost is one sticky wicket, partly due to the use of a platinum catalyst, but researchers at the University of Copenhagen are on to a relatively simple way to cut that down to size.

platinum catalysf for fuel cell electric vehicles

Platinum by mdxdt.


First here’s a quick briefing for those of you new to the topic. Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) are essentially electric vehicles (EVs), but instead of using lithium-ion batteries to store energy they use fuel cells.

Loosely speaking, the difference is that a fuel cell produces electricity on board the vehicle using hydrogen, while batteries store electricity drawn from the grid (which someday could involve wireless transfer from roadways, btw).

If you’re interested in more details, the Department of Energy issued a battery vs. fuel cell comparison in 2009 that comes out in favor of fuel cells, assuming certain kinks can be worked out.

So, when Tesla’s Straubel talks about a five-minute EV charge, he’s not just blowing smoke. On the other hand, he might not be talking about lithium-ion batteries, either.

Cheaper FCEVs On The Horizon

Just as the cost of lithium-ion batteries has kept the retail price of EVs relatively high, the cost of fuel cell technology is the main driver behind the high cost of FCEVs, and the main reason for that is the cost of the platinum catalyst.

That could be about to change. One pathway is the development of cheaper alternative fuel cell catalysts, and the other is to use platinum more efficiently.

The latter tack was taken by researchers at the University of Copenhagen’s Chemistry Department, which discovered a way to produce low-cost fuel cells that get the same bang out of just one-fifth the platinum.

The work builds partly on current fuel cell technology, which relies on particles of platinum rather than sheets to split hydrogen atoms into electrons and ions (sheets would be prohibitively expensive). According to the Copenhagen team, typically the current technology yields about one Ampere per milligram of platinum.

The team’s platinum catalyst came in with a significantly improved performance, at about eight Amperes per milligram.

Since the team had used smaller than usual platinum particles, the assumption was that size made the difference. However, as often happens with significant tech breakthroughs, the truth revealed itself almost by accident. The team had tested a range of particle sizes, and further analysis of the winning sample revealed that the real difference consisted in the way that the particles were packed more tightly together.

In a bit of a modest twist on the old “it ain’t the meat, it’s the motion” saw, they’re calling this the “Particle Proximity Effect.”

One caveat: like Straubel’s prediction of a five-minute EV charge, the timeline for commercial development of the new catalyst is anybody’s guess. The team is currently applying for grants to enable further R&D efforts.

The 800-Pound Gorilla In The Hydrogen Fuel Cell

Here’s another caveat: it takes a lot of energy to produce hydrogen for fuel cells. Currently, the energy source of choice in the US is natural gas, which leads us into the whole natural gas fracking mess.

That’s not going to change any time soon, as all indications are that the Obama Administration views natural gas as a problematic but “cleaner” energy bridge to transition out of coal and oil, as evidenced by Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent guest post for our friends over at Think Progress.

You can see further evidence of that viewpoint in the President’s fuel cell initiative, H2USA, and considering the unresolved issues surrounding the natural gas drilling method known as fracking, we’re giving it the sustainability stinkeye for now.

However, you can already see signs of a transition out of the transition. One good example is a Department of Defense project in Hawaii, which has branded itself as the nation’s test bed for alternative energy.

Among many other projects, the state is serving as a demo fuel cell vehicle project for the US Army in partnership with GM. Although for now the demo is based on hydrogen production from the state’s major gas company, TCG, prospects look good for using renewable energy to manufacture hydrogen for fuel cells.

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About the Author

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+.

  • QKodiak

    Anybody who has studied hydrogen fuel cell (HFC) vehicle technology will tell that they are not the answer. Pure EVs can offer a better experience because of the smaller system footprint and cost less. The Tesla Model S has a frunk and huge trunk where other EVs have that area full of electrical components, an ICE, or hydrogen fuel cells.

    HFCs are roughly two and a half times more efficient than their ICE-powered variants, but less than a pure EV. Then you factor in the KW used to produce hydrogen and energy used to transport and store it, HFC tech’s net efficiency is much lower than Pure EV Tech.
    It’s much more efficient to generate electricity, transmit it through power lines, put it through a charger, and into an EV’s battery than generating energy, transmitting it, using it to produce hydrogen, compressing it, transporting it, storing it, and pumping it into a HFC vehicle; which BTW already has a battery comparable in size to a pure EV. But it also has large hydrogen tanks, fuel cells, and other electric system components making the system large, heavy, expensive, and complicated.

    Then there is the infrastructure issue. Hydrogen stations are much more expensive to make and take up more space than a fast charge station like Tesla’s upgradeable Supercharger stations. A low cost Level II EV charger can be installed nearly anywhere. It’s cheaper to make pure EVs; their infrastructure is far cheaper and can be expanded more quickly and more densely; and the tech is constantly improving. Why would you invest in hydrogen?

  • Ad van der Meer

    Whenever the advantages of FCEV’s are discussed I (almost) never see the fact that a FCEV still needs a battery.
    The Hyundai ix35 FCEV has a 24 kWh battery on board.

    Switching from gas to hydrogen is like switching from cocaine to heroine. You might be switching dealer, but you’re still addicted!

  • Ivor O’Connor

    Is this article meant to be troll bait? Calling Tesla a PR machine is not fair. Tesla delivers.

    So the author does not see any expensive problems with the creation and storage of hydrogen? She only sees the fuel cells as a problem? Things must be improving faster than I can follow…

  • Dan Hue

    Why do we need to choose between batteries and fuel cells? Would it be feasible to have both: a smaller battery (e.g., ~25kWh) for 95%+ of typical driving, and a fuel cell as range extender? There is already an aluminum-air “battery” that is really conceptually closer to a fuel cell than to a electrochemical battery. I’m not sure of the economics of such a solution, but big batteries have drawbacks too (cost, weight, recyclability, etc.). Just a thought.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Sure. We could build PHEVs with fuel cells rather than ICEs.

      It will come down to cost. Will it be cheaper to build personal vehicles with high capacity batteries or to use fewer batteries and a ICE or fuel cell?

      Batteries have a very large advantage in that a lot of energy is lost converting electricity to hydrogen. That would make the cost of a hydrogen FCEV more expensive per mile.

      And then we’d have to build a hydrogen infrastructure which would further increase costs. If we used hydrogen only as a range extender on long trips we could minimize the cost of hydrogen infrastructure by needing far less than if we tried to drive on hydrogen 100% of the time.

  • eject

    Fuels cell are also known as fool cell. There large scale use will happen around the same time as large scale magnetic contained fusion.

    • anti_banker

      No matter how hydrogen is generated (even totally ‘cleanly’), there is the issue of having to build an expensive, nationwide hydrogen refilling network, compared to battery electric cars which already have the electric grid almost everywhere. You would also have to store high pressure hydrogen onboard every vehicle making it dangerous (no matter how much they have promised that these dangers have been ‘reduced’). Let’s not go back to the stupid times of George W Bush.

  • Picoallen

    It would be useful to see a plot of the cost of producing hydrogen or methane over time as the technologies have progressed. Presumably at some time in the future it may become cheaper to manufacture a gas substitute from renewable electricity than to frack it. But realistically how far away is that? The costs of solar and wind have dropped and continue to do so at astounding rates. Is electricity to hydrogen/methane conversion following a similar but slower curve?

    • Bob_Wallace

      Are we allowed to use the full cost of natural gas? To add in the cost of climate change caused by the carbon we’re bringing to the surface and pumping into the atmosphere?

      If we include external costs then the math becomes quite different.

      Hydrogen cracked from water using renewable energy is going to track the cost of renewable energy.

      This graphic shows where energy is lost with hydrogen fuel cell vehicles vs. EVs. The cheaper the electricity input, the cheaper the hydrogen. (But it makes more sense to go the EV route.)

    • Ivor O’Connor

      It’s not far away at all. Germany already dumps excess wind into methane generation. Maybe in 10 years it will be common place in many areas across our planet to dump the excess into methane.

  • RobS

    Fuel Cells are a much much more expensive way to use much much more energy to acheive the same thing as an EV can do presently. It would take a series of massive breakthrough in both fuel cell and hydrogen production technology and a simultaneous halt in any further improvements in batteries for fuel cells to ever even approach EV’s.

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