Hydrogen fuel cells rely on catalysts to facilitate the chemical reactions. So far, costly and scarce platinum has been used for this purposes

Palladium nano-islands to cut cost of hydrogen fuell cells

A new highly efficient and cheaper catalyst for hydrogen fuel cells has been developed that could possible replace expensive and scarce platinum and drive down costs of the technology.

The innovative alloy is composed of palladium and tungsten and features a unique nano-structure providing high efficiency in facilitating the chemical reactions inside the fuel cell. The alloy has been developed by Swedish researcher Thomas Wågberg in cooperation with Chinese scientists. The invention was described in the latest issue of the Nature Communications journal.

“In our study we report a unique novel alloy with a palladium (Pd) and tungsten (W) ratio of only one to eight, which still has similar efficiency as a pure platinum catalyst,” said Wågberg, senior lecturer at the Department of Physics of Umeå University. “Considering the cost, it would be 40 times lower.”

The impressive efficiency is achieved by spreading palladium nano-islands, about a nanometre in size, throughout a tungsten base. Each of the islands consists of only 10 to 20 atoms of Palladium and they are separated from each other. The unique environment around the Palladium islands induces special effects, turning the islands into highly efficient catalytic hot-spots for oxygen reduction - the key chemical reaction in a hydrogen fuel cell.

“The unique formation of the material is based on a synthesis method, which can be performed in an ordinary kitchen micro-wave oven purchased at the local supermarket,” said Wågberg. “If we were not using argon as a protective inert gas, it would be fully possible to synthesise this advanced catalyst in my own kitchen.“

Hydrogen fuel cells have long been considered by many experts as one of the most promising technologies for renewable energy generation. However, the need to use the costly and scarce platinum as a catalyst to facilitate the chemical reactions inside the fuel cell have so far hindered the development. The new alloy, which allows replacing platinum without sacrificing efficiency, could help promote the more widespread use of hydrogen fuel cell technology.

Wågberg and his fellow researchers have recently received funding from the Kempe Foundation to buy a more advanced micro-wave oven, and therefore they will be able to run more advanced experiments to fine tune some of the properties of the new catalyst.

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