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Hydrogen vehicles could become mass market thanks to new catalyst

Image credit: Dreamstime

A new catalyst has been developed that can be used to produce cheaper and more sustainable hydrogen-powered vehicles.

Currently, hydrogen vehicles need about 50 grams of platinum to operate that serves as a catalyst in their fuel cells compared to traditional vehicles which only use about five grams in their catalytic convertors.

Platinum is a rare and precious metal with only around 100 tonnes produced annually from mines in South Africa.

Researchers at the University of Copenhagen believe they have developed a catalyst that doesn’t require such a large quantity of platinum.

“We have developed a catalyst which, in the laboratory, only needs a fraction of the amount of platinum that current hydrogen fuel cells for cars do,” said Professor Matthias Arenz, who worked on the project.

“We are approaching the same amount of platinum as needed for a conventional vehicle. At the same time, the new catalyst is much more stable than the catalysts deployed in today’s hydrogen powered vehicles.”

Sustainable technologies are often challenged by the limited availability of the rare materials that make them possible, which in turn limits scalability. This current limitation makes it impossible to replace the world’s vehicles with hydrogen models overnight.

“The new catalyst can make it possible to roll out hydrogen vehicles on a vastly greater scale than could have ever been achieved in the past,” said Professor Jan Rossmeisl.

The new catalyst improves fuel cells significantly, by making it possible to produce more horsepower per gram of platinum. This in turn, makes the production of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles more sustainable.

As only the surface of a catalyst is active, as many platinum atoms as possible are needed to coat it. It also needs to be durable.

To gain as much surface area as possible, today’s catalysts are based on platinum-nano-particles which are coated over carbon.

Unfortunately, carbon makes catalysts unstable. The new catalyst is carbon-free, instead of nano-particles, the researchers developed a network of nanowires that improve both surface area and have high durability.

“With this breakthrough, the notion of hydrogen vehicles becoming commonplace has become more realistic. It allows them to become cheaper, more sustainable and more durable,” Rossmeisl said.

The next step for the researchers is to scale up their results so that the technology can be implemented in hydrogen vehicles.

“We are in talks with the automotive industry about how this breakthrough can be rolled out in practice. So, things look quite promising,” Arenz said.

In July, a trial showed that hydrogen vehicle fleets can have a strong positive impact on local air quality in addition to cutting carbon emissions. 

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