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.
FCEVs And EVs
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.
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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