Electric Vehicles new fuel cell catalyst

Published on June 7th, 2014 | by Tina Casey


Volcano Coughs Up New Fuel Cell Catalyst

June 7th, 2014 by  

This one begins like a chapter from Jules Verne’s novel The Mysterious Island and ends up with a new fuel cell catalyst that could lead to cost-competitive fuel cell vehicles. The new catalyst is based on an enzyme called H2ase S–77, which was discovered on Kyushu Island in Japan at an active volcano called Mt. Aso, by a researcher from Kyushu University.

The low-cost angle comes in because H2ase S–77 (short for hydrogenase S-77) could replace platinum, which is the very expensive but highly efficient current “gold standard” for fuel cell catalysts.

new fuel cell catalyst

New fuel cell catalyst courtesy of Kyushu University.

Dirty Or Clean, Fuel Cells Are Here To Stay

Since we’ve been having a rather lively discussion about fuel cells versus batteries over here at CleanTechnica, let’s begin by stating the obvious: although a fuel cell electric vehicle is a zero emission vehicle at the tailpipe, in terms of the supply chain FCEVs are only as clean as their fuel source, which right now includes a lot of fossil natural gas.

For now, that puts FCEVs in the same pickle as any BEV (battery electric vehicle) that is charged off an electricity grid mix of coal and/or fossil gas (and to a lesser extent in the US, petroleum).

Both BEVs and FCEVs are on the way to solving this problem through the use of renewable energy (solar powered hydrogen production and renewable biogas come to mind), so all else being equal you can start sorting out some of the advantages and disadvantages of actually owning one of these things.

One key advantage that fuel cells have for the driving public is the convenience of a superfast refill rate, but on the other hand the skyrocketing number of BEV charging stations (including home and workplace charging options) also offers a convenience factor.

As for the future of FCEVs, they are already getting a foothold in specialty markets, for example in warehouses and seaport operations. Stationary home fuel cells powered by solar panels are also entering the market, to say nothing of commercial scale fuel cells.

There is also a movement afoot to introduce low cost solar-sourced hydrogen fuel cells to the residential market in remote communities as an alternative to cheap diesel generators.

Another thing to consider is supply chain issues. The growth in clean energy tech is leading to an explosion of diversity in energy storage tech, both stationary and mobile, and that in turn brings up the cost and scarcity of materials such as platinum and other precious metals as well as various rare earths, along with other factors including geopolitical issues.

Put tech diversity in the context of supply chain issues and you can see how the tech balance could swing in the direction of whichever platform gives you the most stable, reliable sourcing, whether that turns out to be batteries or fuel cells.

A New Catalyst For Fuel Cells

Now that we got that out of the way, let’s take a look at that new fuel cell catalyst from Kyushu University, which is described in the online edition of Angewandte Chemie International.

For the record, the Kyushu researcher who discovered H2ase S-77 is Professor Seiji Ogo, with an assist from his wife Saori Ogo, for whom the “S” in S-77 is named.

Hydrogenases themselves are nothing new, but until now they haven’t been applied to polymer electrolyte fuel cells because they don’t play well with oxygen. In fact, they simply deactivate, rendering them useless (btw Oregon State University has a handy overview of polymer fuel cell and their application to vehicles).

H2ase S-77 is not your father’s hydrogenase, though. The Kyushu team discovered that it continues to release electrons from hydrogen molecules even in the presence of oxygen.


Based on that finding, the Kyushu team assembled a working fuel cell without a platinum anode, and here’s where it gets really interesting.

The team found that the enzyme didn’t just replace platinum, it significantly outperformed it:

This enzyme demonstrated a mass activity (roughly the current obtained divided by the mass of catalyst per cm2 of electrode) that was over 600 times greater than that of platinum. Until now, platinum has far exceeded any other catalyst in terms of mass activity, resulting in the exclusive use of this rare and precious metal in commercial fuel cells. The H2ase S–77 result, however, demonstrates that molecular catalysts could be serious contenders as a replacement for metallic platinum.

We’re not saying it’s game over for platinum just yet, but that sure looks promising. The next steps include gaining a better understanding of the working mechanism behind H2ase S-77, and then there are several pesky little durability factors to consider.

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About the Author

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. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • Jan Veselý

    I would like to have a fuel cell. BUT it should use liquid, easy to be stored fuel (methanol?) and it would have to be much cheaper than it is today (5-10 times). The biggest, mortal enemy of FCs are cheap combustion engines.

  • nakedChimp

    FCs as a technology went dead for me once I tried to get a small energy conversion unit for a research project in a forest (no solar, no grid, etc..) 2 years ago.
    The prices and capacity one could buy where (to my surprise) absolute crap- and that after all these years where it’s been touted you could buy a car/HESS that’s being powered by these things..
    To this day I’m carrying Lead Acid Cells to that place (every month or so) and will at some point switch to Li-Ion based batteries. But FC? Lol

  • Benjamin Nead

    Thumbs up on James’ and Bob’s observations. I’ve tried to keep an open mind on hydrogen fuel cells and, back in the early 2000s, really thought it was the way to go.

    That bubble was burst for me after watching the 2006 movie “Who Killed The Electric Car” and the rundown presented there by Joseph J. Romm (author of the 2004 volume “The Hype About Hydrogen,) regarding the 5 miracles needed to make hydrogen into a viable clean and affordable automotive power source.

    A couple of years ago, I was beginning to read again about fuel cells and, while now more skeptical, I was willing to ponder whether enough research hadn’t been applied to solve many of the earlier problems.

    I was apprised by many hydrogen advocates then of solar PV electrolysis of water as a way to mitigate to the problems of dirty (steam methane reformation) hydrogen, but also heard the counter arguments that a similar-sized PV array would be far more effective as a grid-tied source for electricity and in the resultant charging of an EV’s battery.

    This recent Clean Technica article, authored by Julian Cox, linked here . . .


    . . . only confirms my suspicions that hydrogen is being advanced by the petroleum industry as a diversion to advance further progress in the deployment of battery electric vehicles.

    So, we are witnessing, in Tina’s article, a newly-discovered volcanic enzyme technology that allows the fuel cell itself to less expensive and even outperform today’s, which relies largely on platinum.

    Well, OK. Unfortunately, we are still left with the bulk of affordable hydrogen being manufactured via (environmentally dirty) steam methane reforming. a superior cell technology doesn’t address that thorny issue.

    • Bob_Wallace

      It’s looking to me that FCEVs are a non-starter in terms of dealing with carbon emissions for transportation. Not that they couldn’t let us drive around without adding carbon to the atmosphere, but because most of us won’t pay the premium for clean hydrogen.

      Most drivers would not reach for the much higher priced hydrogen nozzle at the pump. Most will grab the NG H2 one. Were we to replace ICEVs with FCEVs we would continue to pump GHG into the atmosphere until the supply of NG was pretty much gone. And that’s too far in the future.

      (Yeah, I know I’m repeating myself. But I’m working through a new realization. ;o)

    • Renewable Hydrogen Fan

      “Who killed the Electric Car” was made in 2006. Great leaps have been made in cost reduction and tech for fuel cells. Why is it that the hydrogen detractors are always talking about the huge future for breakthroughs in lithium batteries but assume that hydrogen tech will never move forward?

      Hydrogen from renewables is the key.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Hydrogen from renewables is the key.

        Absolutely. Unless the H2 comes from renewables we make no gain on slowing climate change.

        But there’s the rub. It takes 2x to 3x more renewable energy to drive a hydrogen mile than to drive an electric mile. The cost of driving a H2 FCEV is going to be twice or more the cost of driving an EV.

      • Benjamin Nead

        I think it’s obvious that hydrogen has moved forward since 2006 (and so have batteries, but that’s a whole other discussion.) The newer fuel cells are more durable, they cost less to produce and there have been great strides in the range vehicles are able to obtain (some of this, undoubtedly, tied to more efficient on-vehicle gas storage.)

        What concerns me is the environmental cost of hydrogen and the way we all know it’s going to be manufactured at scale (ie: steam methane reforming, as opposed to electrolysis.)

        Even solar PV electrolysis to produce hydrogen at home gives me a little pause for concern. Given a particular sized array (kW) of PV panels and two vehicles of similar size and utility (one being a BEV and the other an FCV,) which one is the winner in regards to energy in and energy out? It’s my understanding that the numbers favor the BEV paired with grid-tied PV at home.

        Furthermore, a BEV paired with grid-tied PV has benefits in regards to the vehicles acting in the capacity of a vehicle to grid (V2G) scenario . . .


        With hydrogen, one maintains the status quo of a separate energy sources for our vehicles (currently gasoline for most) and the electricity that powers our homes. The integration of FCV with electrolysis PV and grid-tied PV electricity for the home may be possible, but – to cite an old bar room saying – it seems to entail “a lot of work for a little sex.” Translation: more complex and expensive than how its being done today.

        • Bob_Wallace

          I suspect the PV electrolysis at home stuff hasn’t been well thought out. At least I’ve never seen a detailed analysis.

          It would mean that those people with a garage (half or less of all drivers) would have to install an electrolysis system. Half of all drivers would still be visiting filling stations.

          Since the systems would run on PV they’d have to be robust enough to make a more than a day’s worth of H2 on the sunny days and have adequate storage for multiple non-sunny days. People would likely need to hook up daily and refill their vehicle in order to avoid much larger storage tanks. Not the simplicity of parking over a wireless charger outlet.

          The electrolysis system would run less than five hours per day, on average. That’s an investment in infrastructure that’s being used only ~20% of the time.

          Then one would need to install 2x or more solar panels than they would for an EV.

          All of this in order to avoid a few extra charging minutes on infrequent long driving days?

  • heinbloed

    It’s amazing what secrets planet Earth still has to show.
    I came across sinter materials in Iceland (around Geysirs) which looked like very promising catalysts. Geological science should receive much more support.

  • Bob_Wallace

    “For now, that puts FCEVs in the same pickle as any BEV (battery electric vehicle) that is charged off an electricity grid mix of coal and/or fossil gas (and to a lesser extent in the US, petroleum).”

    No, the FCEV is a much sourer pickle. It takes 2x to 3x as much electricity per mile to propel a electricity-produced hydrogen FCEV than to drive a mile in an EV. If the hydrogen were to come from US grids the FCEV would put 2x to 3x as much carbon into the atmosphere.

    And, if folks have read Julian’s article, we aren’t likely to see hydrogen produced from electricity. Hydrogen from natural gas is much cheaper and, lacking a price on carbon, FCEVs will use ‘dirty’ H2. The FCEVs on our roads will likely produce more CO2 than a Toyota Prius hybrid.

    I’m with James. Buy the EV. Or at least a PHEV. Even a PHEV burning a significant amount of gas is going to be better than a FCEV using NG H2.

  • JamesWimberley

    Tina’s framing is almost right but not quite.
    “For now, that puts FCEVs in the same pickle as any BEV (battery electric vehicle) that is charged off an electricity grid mix of coal and/or fossil gas (and to a lesser extent in the US, petroleum).”

    If you have an ev, you will mostly charge it off the grid supply as it is. This includes in most places a significant and rapidly growing share of low-carbon and renewable generation. In France, Brazil and Norway, it’s the largest part. Supportive public policy, continuous technical development, and economic forces all make it a safe bet that this share will grow considerably over the 15-year life of the vehicle. If you don’t think this is enough, you can put solar panels on your roof, at negligible personal sacrifice.

    You can’t buy a fuel cell car, but if you could, the hydrogen fuel would be produced from natural gas. Apart from a couple of pilots in Germany, there aren’t any electrolysis plants powered by renewables. There aren’t any plans either to roll them out at scale. It’s a technology that might be deployed some day.

    Keep an eye on synfuels and fuel cells, but buy the ev.

    • Renewable Hydrogen Fan

      Green hydrogen facility opens at Berlin airport, with first refueling of fuel cell vehicle. “H2BER’s operating principle is based on applying hydrogen as an energy source produced using wind power and solar energy. Initially the electricity required will be provided by a nearby wind park.” http://www.renewableenergyfocus.com/view/38624/green-hydrogen-facility-opens-at-berlin-airport-with-first-refueling-of-fuel-cell-vehicle/

      A Hydrogen fueling station can be installed in 48 hours at a cost less than or equal to a Tesla charging station- and much less than the battery swap stations that will probably never exist http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kjGaNGhz1pE

      Honda has a working solar hydrogen fueling station and is working on home hydrogen fueling stations http://world.honda.com/FuelCell/SolarHydrogenStation/

      Anyone can make hydrogen at home if they have water and electricity. And if the electricity is from solar, it’s free. Hydrogen from renewables is Big Oil’s nightmare

      Top Gear reviewed a Hydrogen electric in 2008- the tech is much cheaper and better now http://www.topgear.com/uk/videos/honda-clarity

      • JamesWimberley

        You provide no evidence for the incredible assertion that “a hydrogen fueling station can be installed in 48 hours at a cost less than or equal to a Tesla charging station.” (My italics.) The linked video shows a full shipping container of high-tech equipment – you don’t mess around with hydrogen. It must be much more expensive than an ev charger, which is basically a high-capacity inverter.

      • Julian Cox

        You need to get to grips with the fact that all of these renewable hydrogen PR stunts serve no other purpose than as a Trojan Horse for the introduction of dirty hydrogen from natural gas. As soon as a population of FCVs is on the road where do you think the cheapest hydrogen will come from? How is solar supposed to compete with it after absorbing the grotesque and immovable efficiency losses of converting electricity to chemical energy?

    • greent22

      actually did you know that Norway has the first built hydrogen highway? This is on youtube and the hydrogen is from renewable energy. Stations are standalone and look like a household fridge. Anyways I just wanted to say that there are examples of hydrogen working in the world. Also I think hydrogen and EVs go well together. As range extenders and also why can’t we have some hybrids of this sort? Where if your out of hydrogen you can plug in to charge batteries. That’s what I am looking forward to some day. I don’t see why everyone has to pick a side. The only side I want to be on is one that is replacing gasoline vehicles

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