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Full Cycle Energy Joins Race for Non-Platinum Fuel Cells

Expensive platinum being replaced to make fuel cells more affordable.

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The California startup Full Cycle Energy is on a roll, hopscotching over its own platinum nanotube-based fuel cell to develop a new fuel cell that ditches platinum entirely.  The implications for widescale adoption of sustainable fuel cells are huge, because until now platinum has been a major stumbling block.  Platinum is the go-to material to make fuel cell catalysts, but its high cost and finite availability have limited the potential for fuel cells to break into the mass market – until now.  Full Cycle Energy is one among a number of companies experimenting with new alternatives to platinum that could make fuel cells significantly more affordable in the future.

Fuel Cells and Platinum

In most fuel cells, platinum is the catalyst that splits hydrogen into ions and electrons.  It is used as a coating on two electrodes.  A membrane between the electrodes conducts the ions from one side to the other, generating an electric current.  But platinum has already hit a wall in terms of both price and availability.  It recently peaked at over $2000 per ounce compared to $2-$12 for alternative metals in development like nickel, iron and silver.  According to Professor Doug MacFarlane of Australia’s Monash University, even if the price comes down there is a supply problem, as currently the global production of platinum would barely supply 1/20 of global vehicle production with raw materials for fuel cells.

Full Cycle Energy and Platinum

Full Cycle Energy is meeting the platinum challenge at both ends.  The company is already licensed to commercialize a platinum-coated carbon nanotube fuel cell catalyst, PtNT, which is estimated to cut the cost of conventional platinum fuel cells by two-thirds while improving durability tenfold.  The breakthrough discovery was made by Professor Yushan Yan, chairman of the Chemical and Environmental Engineering Department at the University of California, Riverside.  Professor Yan and his team are also behind the new non-platinum technology, which has also been licensed to Full Cycle Energy for commercialization.  Professor Yan substituted a high performance alkaline membrane for the acidic medium used in conventional platinum fuel cells, enabling the use of less expensive metals instead of platinum.  The new technology has another key advantage: it can be used with a variety of fuels in addition to hydrogen, potentially including sustainable and biodegradable fuels.

The Future of Non-Platinum Fuel Cells

Professor Yan and Full Cycle Energy are just two key players in the race to develop more sustainable, efficient, durable, and affordable fuel cells that use little if any platinum.  A team that includes Brookhaven National Laboratory and Washington University in St. Louis has designed a nanostructured fuel cell using platinum and palladium, Japan’s Daihatsu has been working on an alkali-based fuel cell, Oxford University researchers have discovered an enzyme found in mushrooms that has a catalytic performance equal to platinum, the company Lilliputian is developing a ceramic membrane that eliminates the need for platinum, and researchers at the aforementioned Monash University are even using the breathable fabric developed by Goretex in a platinum-free fuel cell.

Image: Field ion microscope image of platinum by mdxdt on flickr.com.  Each bright spot is a platinum atom.

 
 
 
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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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