UC Lab Finds New Fuel Source

    Scientists at the UC-managed Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico recently announced the discovery of a cheaper fuel cell catalyst that uses a cobalt composite instead of the more traditional and vastly more expensive platinum-based compound.

    Unlike a battery, fuel cells do not need to be recharged and will continue to run as long as reactants are supplied. The electrochemical process is two to three times more efficient than fuel burning and emits no pollutants — only heat and water.

    The traditional platinum catalyst fuel cell generates electricity similar to a battery through two half-reactions. However, without a catalyst, the reaction to create electricity does not take place, making platinum arguably the most important component of the fuel cell. This component also contributes a great deal to the system’s cost.

    The high price of platinum has been a roadblock for the commercial viability of fuel cells.

    “One big obstacle for fuel cells to become more practical is the cost, especially the cost of precious metals,” project leader Piotr Zelenay said.

    As a precious metal, platinum is subject to rocketing market prices, and is currently priced at $38 per gram. Cobalt, on the other hand, is far less expensive, at only four cents per gram. The abundance of cobalt resources worldwide and its low cost make cobalt a very attractive catalyst, according to Zelenay.

    Another non-precious metal that has shown some catalytic activity is iron, which led to the decision to test cobalt, Zelenay said.

    “The reason why we selected cobalt first was the good proven catalytic activity in other non-precious metals in other catalytic systems,” he said.

    Cobalt yielded surprising results for a non-precious metal, according to Zelenay. It was able to withstand the acidic environment of the fuel cell without degrading like iron, and was proven to remain stable for several hundred hours.

    However, as promising as this discovery is, it is not yet the ultimate solution for battling fuel cell costs while maintaining performance, Zelenay said. The key point of the experiment was to show the durability of the catalyst, not the efficiency.

    The fact that cobalt worked as part of the catalyst opens up an entirely new avenue of looking at non-precious metals as possible catalyst sources, he said.

    The actual amount of electricity that was produced from the cobalt catalyst is not yet at practical levels for commercial use.

    For LANL, the next step “requires not the development of new catalysts, but in this particular case, … the work of the structure of the catalyst,” Zelenay said.

    In order to be able to continue with that research, the U.S. Department of Energy awarded $100 million for fuel cell research to 25 different projects nationwide last week, including multiple projects at Los Alamos.

    LANL is a multidisciplinary research facility that looks at solving energy- and environment-related problems. Zelenay and research partner Rajesh Bashyam mainly focus on polymer electrolyte fuel cells, which are more hopeful sources of alternate energy mainly due to their low heat output and high energy density. According to Zelenay, these fuel cells have been seen as a possible alternative energy source in a variety of sectors, including transportation, portable devices, military uses, residential power and space.

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