Fuel Cell With Mystery Catalyst Aims To Conquer The World

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CleanTechnica came this close to unraveling the mystery behind CellEra’s new platinum free fuel cell last week during a visit to the Fuel Choices Summit in Tel Aviv. Company officials weren’t giving away any secrets, unfortunately for us, but we did get a chance to see the new fuel cell first hand and we can tell you how it fits into the big picture of the emerging hydrogen economy.

The CellEra exhibit was part of an expo attached to the Fuel Choices Summit. The expo included a score of up-and-coming alternative fuel and mobility companies, showcasing technologies ranging from synfuels made from sunlight and carbon dioxide to a portable (as in, handy suitcase on wheels portable) electric scooter for multi-platform urban travel. We’ll try to get to some of those in a later post but for now, let’s dig into the platinum free fuel cell.

A Platinum Free Fuel Cell For Electric Vehicles

Low cost platinum free hydrogen fuel cell from CellEra
Platinum free hydrogen fuel cell courtesy of CellEra.

The CellEra fuel cell is designed for a variety of uses including electric vehicles and stationary purposes, but before we get to that let’s take a quick look at some recent history in fuel cell development.

The now-retired Space Shuttle used first generation alkaline fuel cell technology, which is all well and good for outer space and other uncontaminated environments. However, alkaline technology is highly susceptible to carbon dioxide “poisoning,” which makes it a costly endeavor here on Earth.

One second-generation solution has been PEM (polymer electrolyte membrane) fuel cells.  The sticky wicket here is the catalyst that separates the electrons and protons in hydrogen. Typically it’s made with platinum, which costly because it is platinum, and extra costly because it is sensitive to carbon monoxide poisoning and requires additional systems to prevent that.

CellEra has come up with a fuel cell that deploys a catalyzed, solid polymer electrolyte (polymer refers to a form of plastic) which renders platinum unnecessary, hence the name Platinum-Free Membrane (PFM)

As described by CellEra, platinum is unnecessary because the polymer electrolytes conduct hydroxyl ions  rather than protons. That means the PFM cell is mildly alkaline, which enables the use of a low cost transition metal catalyst rather than a noble metal such as platinum.

Which transition metal? That’s a good question, so we asked it. The answer given to us by company officials at the expo is simple: that is a secret. Oh, well.

For an added bonus, the alkaline environment is non-corrosive, enabling PFM cells to use a light weight aluminum infrastructure.

But wait, there’s more. Also contributing to lower costs is a conducting membrane made of a relatively inexpensive polymer.

The Hydrogen Economy

If the back of your neck started tingling when you heard “hydrogen,” join the club. Hydrogen fuel cells run on hydrogen, and a main source of industrial hydrogen currently is natural gas, which opens up a raft of issues relating to the impacts of fracking (a natural gas drilling method).

Those impacts range from local air and water pollution to earthquakes, fugitive methane emissions (methane is a potent greenhouse gas), and fracking wastewater disposal issues as well as direct economic impacts on and near fracking sites.

CellEra suggests ammonia as a source for hydrogen, but that only defers the problem, since industrial ammonia is produced mainly from natural gas and to some extent from petroleum sources.

However, looking ahead to the near future, far more sustainable methods of hydrogen production are already in the works, which will take hydrogen fuel cell companies like CellEra up to the next level.

Among the more interesting projects we’ve been following is a major municipal wastewater-to-hydrogen demonstration project in California partnering up Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory with the company Chemergy.

In an interesting twist, another wastewater themed project in Colorado deploys a microbial fuel cell as part of a low cost treatment process that produces hydrogen as a byproduct.

Landfill gas and other renewable forms of renewable alternatives to natural gas are another promising avenue for sustainable hydrogen manufacturing.

On top of that you have a whole raft of R&D projects deploying solar power to produce hydrogen from water, ranging from a relatively affordable “artificial leaf” designed for household use to the potential for cost-effective commercial production of renewable hydrogen.

The Fuel Choices Summit

By the way, the aforementioned Fuel Choices Summit in Tel Aviv comes under the umbrella of Israel’s national Fuel Choices Initiative, which is aimed specifically at reducing the country’s dependence on oil for transportation.

Given Israel’s growing reputation as a friendly environment for tech start-ups along with its relatively small domestic market, the Fuel Choices Initiative also aims to export Israeli solutions to help meet global challenges, particularly in developing countries.

This week we covered some of the country’s solar power demo projects in the Arava region. Solar development in that area is expected to achieve 100 percent energy independence for the tourist city of Eilat and surrounding desert communities within a few years, with obvious implications for solar power in other desert environments around the globe.

Next week we’ll talk about some of the exportable low tech and DIY solutions that we got a chance to see in Israel, in the course of a tour sponsored by the Israeli organization Kinetis.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3141 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey

22 thoughts on “Fuel Cell With Mystery Catalyst Aims To Conquer The World

  • “Hydrogen fuel cell cars are bullshit”
    —Elon Musk & Carlos Ghosn

    • The current breed perhaps. But a cheap, efficient method to produce hydrogen from water is going to go a very long way on a planet with a sextillion kilograms of water.

      • If you assume the drastic improvement of fuel cell and electrolysis cell technology, you must also allow similar improvements on battery technology. And indeed the theoretical potential of increase energy density of batteries and decreasing the cost of battery production is far greater than what “hydrogen economy” can ever offer.

        Therefore, if you are technological optimists, batteries will win on a long term. And if you are technological pessimist, batteries already won! As Tesla proved that that electric cars are way better than ICE cars.

        • That’s not a logical assumption especially when you’re talking about different technologies.
          There are already some very energy-dense batteries but they are not rechargeable. And the discharge rate also matters.
          I’m eager to see better batteries but it’s a big world and the need for energy storage / power production goes well beyond EVs.
          And, if we can solve the problem of efficient production of hydrogen from water, that will be a huge boost for all humanity, not just the ones that drive.

          • The problem with generating hydrogen from water is mostly thermodynamic in nature. We already have reached about 70–80 % efficiency. It is really hard to get significantly better than that.

          • By efficient production I was also implying the H2 would be produced just in time, not stored in tanks.
            Water would be the storage & delivery – we’ve already got that figured out.

          • This does not make sense, because with batteries we will get over 90 % efficiency, but electrolysis + fuel cell cannot get better than 40–60 % efficiency. And if we consider compressing hydrogen, the efficiency plummets to 20–40 % at theoretical best case scenario.

            Therefore by definition and laws of thermodynamics, batteries are always cheaper and more practical than hydrogen storage.

          • Batteries have to be charged. What power source are you charging from at 90% efficiency?
            Wind? Solar? Nuclear? How much is the efficiency of those end-to-end?
            But if you don’t like H2, which I think it be mostly for stationary applications,there’s more than 1 kind of fuel cell.
            Phinergy’s prototype uses aluminium, water & air in a 25 kg package for a 1600 km range extender.

          • “Batteries have to be charged.”

            And hydrogen has to be produced.

            How do you propose to do that?

          • If you’re going to insert yourself into the discussion, please bring something to the table.
            Go back and read through the entire thread.
            If you have something new or insightful, then by all means, contribute.

          • Think thorium reactors…

          • Attempt to make contact with reality….

          • Bob,
            Thorium reactors maybe be able to be used for water distillation along with producing hydrogen from salt water, if located next to the ocean. That was the plan at one point….

          • Sure, we could do that. But why not spend less to get the same result?

          • Stan Meyers water fuel dune buggy hi voltage low amp water to hydrogen then mixing with noncombustible gas to slow burn rate to equal fossil fuels

  • Too bad they don’t call it a “Zero Platinum Membrane” – then it would be a “ZPM”. If you are a fan of the Stargate series, you know what I mean.

  • Fuel Cells like these are excellent for electricity and heat generation at the same time. They can be tweaked to use biogas or biohydrogen. They are way better than generators running on diesel or gasoline in terms of overall efficiency and emissions.

    Fuel Cells that do these are currently very expensive, such as the solid oxide fuel cells made by Bloom Energy. To take over the world as the title claims, the fuel cells should be way cheaper.

    Using Hydrogen Fuel Cells for vehicle transport is not efficient overall compared to rechargeable batteries if hydrogen is produced using electricity.

  • Thanks for the post Tina. I plan to make use of this fuel cell in some of my applications.

  • There is low cost way to get hydrogen from natural gas spliting in four H molecules and one C carbon molecules in carbon black as byproduct this spliting process is made with a plasma reactor, there are a new way of fracking with low frecuencies process without using water, this is a big change, we have think positive, that is evolution and hydrogen fuel cells is not a bullshit, I think E. Muske is afraid.

    • Has this been done in the real world?

      If so, how expensive is the hydrogen produced?

      • Yes, look at GASPLAS, for example.

  • I looked through 3 of CellEra’s patents and I’d have to say there is no secret as to what the “mystery metal” is. They are using nano-particle silver in a deposited ink on the cathode. Silver is a lot less expensive than platinum, but I would expect it to oxidize over time unless somehow specially treated. Maybe that’s in another patent or maybe other ingredients in the ink protects the silver from corroding.

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