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LANL Scientists Work on Fuel Cells

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Scientists say hydrogen fuel cells could power anything that uses batteries, from cell phones to school buses. Fuel-cell powered cars are already on roads around the world, propelling commuters while producing zero emissions.

But our hydrogen-powered future is still years away, in part because hydrogen fuel cells need platinum to function, and platinum isn’t cheap.

“The challenge is the cost is still too high,” said Piotr Zelenay, a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. “Fuel cells are expensive right now, so there’s no mass production.”

In a paper published this week in the international journal Science, Zelenay and two other LANL researchers, Gang Wu and Christina Johnston, joined by Karren More of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, describe a platinum-free catalyst for fuel cells that could hasten the power source’s breakthrough into the mainstream.

Practically every major car manufacturer in the world is working on fuel cell engines, whose process of turning the chemical energy in hydrogen into power is much more efficient than in gasoline engines. Fuel cells also give off water as waste, rather than any greenhouse gas like carbon dioxide.

Hydrogen fuel cell cars can’t be bought by the masses yet, but prototypes are cruising the streets in California, where there are four hydrogen fueling stations in and around Los Angeles that work something like your local Conoco or Giant stations, dispensing liquid hydrogen instead of gasoline.

“Fuel cells convert fuels to electricity continually,” Zelenay said. “You don’t recharge a fuel cell as long as you don’t run out of fuel.”

In cars, he said, a fuel cell combines with a battery that can hold power for longer drives.

The carmaker Honda, Zelenay said, appears closest to commercial development. According to Honda’s website, about 200 of the company’s FXC Clarity models will be leased over the next three years (at $600 a month for three years), “primarily in Southern California.”

Zelenay first drove a fuel cell car in the late 1990s, he said. Since then, the technology has been “refined.” But the cost of platinum has been a hitch. A quarter of the cost to build a fuel-cell system goes toward the platinum, Zelenay said.

Platinum is part of the catalyst in a fuel cell, which separates hydrogen molecules into protons and neutrons at the beginning of a process that incorporates a stream of negatively charged electrons to make power. (Oxygen combines with hydrogen in the fuel cell to create the water that is the waste product.)

Platinum is valued at about $1,800 per ounce, more than gold. If demand for the metal increased because more catalysts were needed for hydrogen fuel cells, that price could climb even higher.

But the LANL team doesn’t use any precious metals in its catalyst. They instead use carbon, iron and cobalt, whose cost relative to platinum is “negligible,” Zelenay said.

“This is the technology that electric cars have to use to be fully practical,” he said. “It (fuel cell technology) is developed, but the cost needs to be lowered.”

The LANL team has tested its platinum-free catalyst in fuel cells, Zelenay said, but not in fuel cell stacks. Fuel cells individually don’t produce much electricity; what we more commonly hear of as fuel cells — like in cars — are actually stacks of several cells.

Working at “laboratory scale,” this group of scientists hasn’t yet produced enough cells for an electrical system. But, Zelenay said, “the process is simple. The scale problem shouldn’t be an issue.”

Much of the funding for the project came from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Office. The federal government has been the chief sponsor of fuel-cell research “for many years now,” Zelenay said.

“The primary driver for the government to fund this is energy security, as well as political reasons and gas emissions,” Zelenay said.

The next step for the research team is improving the stability of the catalyst. The nonplutonium fuel cells have held up well in laboratory experiments, Zelenay said, but there’s still work to be done.

And the clock’s ticking.

“It’s always a competition,” Zelenay said. “If you look around, you’ll know how strong automotive manufacturing is in countries like Japan. … They highlight the fact that they’re on path to commercialization soon.”