For Hydrogen Fuel Cell EVs, ElectroCat Chases Low Cost Catalyst With Graphene Bonus

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ElectroCat. That is all. No, really, that is all. How do you come up with a name for a research consortium cooler than ElectroCat. If you have any thoughts about that, drop us a note in the comment thread. Meanwhile, let’s take a look at the latest news from ElectroCat, which is on a mission to develop new, low cost catalysts for hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles.

hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles
“A look inside the furnace in which pyrolysis for the study [of a platinum-free catalyst for hydrogen fuel cells] took place” by Argonne National Laboratory.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell EVs Have A Catalyst Problem

For those of you new to the topic, FCEVs are electric vehicles, but instead of drawing electricity from a battery they make it on-the-go in a fuel cell, through a chemical reaction between hydrogen and ambient oxygen. Water comes out as a byproduct. Otherwise, FCEVs are zero-emission vehicles.

At the mention of chemical reaction the mind swiftly turns to catalyst, and the catalyst is one of the sticking points that has prevented the current crop of FCEVs from working its way into the hearts and minds of the driving public.

The problem is cost. Platinum is the catalyst of choice for FCEVs, and fuel cells require a relatively large amount of platinum because the oxygen-hydrogen reaction is relatively slow. That makes it all the more difficult for FCEVs to compete with battery EVs on cost (fuel station availability is a whole ‘nother can of worms).

Graphene Unlocks The Secrets Of The Fuel Cell Catalyst

The fuel station thing will eventually resolve, just as it has for battery EVs. Meanwhile, ElectroCat is a federal research consortium that launched in 2018, tasked with developing new platinum-free catalysts for hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles.

The venture is co-led by the Argonne and Los Alamos national laboratories, in partnership with Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

The consortium has been eyeballing a catalyst made with iron, nitrogen, and graphene, a form of carbon with unique and powerful electronic properties.

Previous efforts involved putting all three together in a pyrolysis furnace, which runs on high heat, high pressure, and no oxygen. With the heat turned up to 900-1100 degrees Celsius, both the iron and the nitrogen atoms become embedded in the graphene.

A research team at Argonne has been using the lab’s Advanced Photon Source to study the bonding behavior of the three materials during pyrolysis. They found that the process takes place in sequence, with the nitrogen bonding first and then the gasified iron atoms seeking to bond with those sites.

Each iron atom counts as a reaction site, which makes for a potentially powerful catalyst. However, during pyrolysis some of the iron atoms cluster together or get subdued by the bulk of the carbon, leading to a loss of efficiency.

Based on their new findings, the Argonne researchers upped the game by doping the carbon with nitrogen first, and then introducing the combo into the furnace with iron.

Last week they reported that the pre-doping process yielded a higher density of active sites on the surface of the graphene, which is a good thing, but they are not done yet. Next steps for ElectroCat include increasing the density of active sites, as well as experimenting with other non-platinum catalysts.

Onward & Upward For (Some) Hydrogen FCEVs

For more details on that study, check out “Evolution pathway from iron compounds to Fe1(II)−N4 sites through gas-phase iron during pyrolysis” in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Meanwhile, as noted many times previously on this site, hydrogen FCEVs have a long way to go before catching up with their battery-powered cousins, at least in the passenger car area.

However, automakers are beginning to give some serious thought to the advantages of fuel cells for long-haul heavy trucks and other heavy duty applications in the near future.

BMW is one such example. In March, the company announced that it is continuing to develop a powertrain for its i Hydrogen NEXT fuel cell passenger car, on the theory that there will be more than one option for zero emission mobility in the world of tomorrow. However, for the present BMW has its eye on fuel cells for the long haul shipping market.

BMW is also holding out for renewable hydrogen to hit commercial scale. That’s a key issue because the primary source for hydrogen today is fossil gas.

Volvo is thinking along similar lines. Earlier this month the company launched a new venture with Daimler, aimed at producing fuel cell trucks for the near term, with an emphasis on green H2. Interesting! Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz branch made a splashy leap into the fuel cell pond back in 2015, but its idea of a fuel cell passenger car never caught on and officially ended earlier this year.

Hydrogen & The Green Recovery

As for that fossil gas angle, the cost of renewable H2 has been ratcheting down, and it looks like the trend is set to accelerate quickly.

It’s no surprise that European automakers are expanding their portfolios to include fuel cells, because the EU has been promoting renewable H2 as a key decarbonization pathway. A leaked draft of their green recovery plan, obtained last week by Reuters, earmarks billions of euros for clean hydrogen with a focus on replacing fossil fuels in industrial applications among other areas.

Here in the US, organized FCEV and hydrogen efforts have already been under way along the east and west coast states. Last fall, Argonne and the University of Illinois announced their intention to launch a similar fuel cell initiative among 12 states in the nation’s midsection, which will be partly aimed at leveraging the region’s impressive wind and solar resources to produce renewable H2.

That dovetails neatly with something called the Renewable Hydrogen Fuel Cell Collaborative, which launched in 2016 in support of hydrogen fuel cell buses for Ohio’s SARTA public transportation authority, so stay tuned for more on that.

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Photo (cropped): “A look inside the furnace in which pyrolysis for the study [of a platinum-free catalyst for hydrogen fuel cells] took place” by Argonne National Laboratory.

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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.

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