PORTLAND, Ore.—Fuel cells have been ready for commercialization for years, albeit only for use with pure hydrogen—easy to purchase for the lab, but expensive to mass produce. Even the best fuel cell designs become poisoned by impurities in hydrogen derived from natural gas—the most abundant source—causing them to fail prematurely. Now Cornell University scientists working for the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) believe they have a cure using nanotechnology that could make hydrogen fuel cells commercially viable.
The scientists discovered the cure after analyzing the problem—carbon-monoxide poisoning. Fuel cells electrochemically decompose hydrogen fuel, stripping off its electrons by bonding it with oxygen to form water vapor—its only emission. However, the platinum/ruthenium-alloy catalyst used for the anode in traditional PEM (proton exchange membrane) fuel cells is not only expensive, but can be poisoned by exposure to even trace levels of carbon monoxide. Commercial methods exist for scrubbing carbon monoxide from the hydrogen produced from natural gas, but that inflates the cost of the hydrogen to uneconomical levels.
To solve the problem, a research team led by professor Hector Abruna of Cornell University's Energy Materials Center harnessed nanotechnology to fabricate a catalyst that is less expensive than platinum/ruthenium alloys and yet can tolerate levels of carbon monoxide found in hydrogen produced from natural gas.
The new catalyst is composed of titanium oxide and tungsten coated with a thin-film of platinum nanoparticles, resulting in a tolerance for as much as two-percent carbon monoxide—about 2,000 times more than the amount required to poison a pure platinum catalyst.
Hydrogen fuel cells today use a platinum/ruthenium-alloy catalyst for their anode, but Cornell University researchers say substituting their nanotech catalyst could make fuel cells commercially viable.
Now that the researchers have proven the concept in the lab, they are fabricating a complete PEM fuel cell using their new catalyst. So far the prototype fuel cells outlast traditional fuel-cells, which fail prematurely, and now the team wants to quantify for how long their new architecture will extend a fuel cell's life.
Other researchers contributing to the work included Cornell professor Francis DiSalvo, post doctoral researcher Deli Wang, research associate Hongsen Wang and doctoral candidates Chinmayee Subban and Eric Rus.
Bottom line is that the H2 fuel still has to be produced and stored. So how are we going to produce it? Probably with coal fired electricity plants. Perhaps with nuclear if we can get over the political hurdles...There is no significant hydrogen distribution available. This will require major infrastructure. To me, it makes no sense. Electric (ie batteries and/or capacitors) is the way to go once petroleum becomes cost prohibitive.
I have been a fan of H2 for a long time. We'll find a way. I have had some fun with Browns Gas H2O2, and for you folks with some project time..you may find some fun in increasing your vehicle mileage with H2O2
Good article and it shows there is invention in the universities. How we get that up to the market is a nice step. But this is a good one that summarizes what is happening in this area. But how the energy is stored is important. That will determine the marketing potentials.
This technology solves a huge problem. These vehicles will have to operate on roadways where they will be subjected to CO emissions from the other vehicles. Being able to operate in this environment is a huge step forward.
This article nicely summarize the progresses in the field of the fuel cell. However, i am missing critical analysis and comparison between the fuel cell based energy storage and other competitive technologies. I hope to find another article or extension of this article, which would give more insight in the energy storage technologies. Has such article been published before?
The progress on CO poisoning described here applies more so to stationary PEM fuel cells. Automotive developers have long given up on internal reforming methods for H2 production/storage.
This work allows for the purification step in Hydrogen production process, typically preferential oxidation or pressure swing adsorption to be replaced with a smaller less expensive process unit to reduce CO down to less than 2% (like Methanation). Even without the need for a purification step, internal reforming is too challenging for on board Hydrogen production.
An economic fuel cell would be useful in many applications. But assuming that CO poisoning is taken care of, we're back to the usual questions: what does it cost for the energy density you can attain? And since H2 is the fuel, how do you plan to store it. There have been almost as many schemes for storing H2 as there have been for all sorts of other electrical and mechanical energy storage devices. Even if you couldn't use this particular design in a car, because of cost or H2 storage issues, there are still places where a fuel cell would be a good choice, and that's not just on the Space Shuttle.
Fuel cells have great commercial promise, but have been plagued by engineering shortfalls during implementation, not least of which is the "poisoning" problem that Cornell claims to have solved. I asked General Motors recently if fuel cells were dead--since their Chevy Volt abandoned them--and GM said absolutely not, but they estimated five years to perfect them, which is the same thing they said five years ago! With the advances being made in lithium-air batteries and other energy storage technologies, fuel cell developers need to act faster or be left behind.
Regarding Bloom Box, check out this cool video explanation of the solid-oxide fuel cell approach it uses: http://bit.ly/NextGenLog-BloomBox
-- RColinJohnson @NextGenLog
Nice Illustration. Fuel cells have promised and deceived time and again. Hope the researchers are able to resolve the reliability/safety/commercial issues. By the way, how about a similar illustration for the Bloom Box? Please run a report on that too..
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