There was a time, not all that long ago, when fuel cells looked to be the next big thing for portable and transportable devices–even for cars. Then the hype died down almost as quickly as it started. While fuel cells have found their way into industrial applications, they have not found come into the hands of consumers. The problem is the cost–they are too expensive.
A fuel cell functions by turning the chemical energy of a fuel into electricity by means of a chemical reaction. Hydrogen is the most popular fuel, but a number of others can be used, including hydrocarbons and alcohol. Fuel cells differ from batteries in that they require fuel and oxygen to produce electricity. Their advantage over batteries is that, as long as they have both of these things, they will continue to produce electricity. In a real-world example, let’s imagine using a fuel cell to power a notebook computer. As long as you have fuel, you’d never need to plug it into an outlet.
A fuel cell consists of five main components: an electrolyte, the fuel, an anode catalyst and a cathode catalyst. It is the anode catalyst that’s the problem, as it is usually made from finely powdered platinum. At present, platinum trades for around $1,430 per ounce, so it’s responsible for a sizable portion of the cost of production.
This is where the research team at Finland’s Aalto University comes into play. It’s developed a technique whereby the amount of catalyst required can be substantially reduced. Using atomic layer deposition, the team was able to achieve an even coating of catalyst using 60 percent less material, and achieve the same results as if the catalyst had been applied using conventional techniques. When the material is platinum (which is necessary for fuel cells that run on hydrogen), using 60 percent less can save a great deal of money.
The team is also working on a low-cost fuel cell that runs on methanol rather than hydrogen and which uses palladium, which costs roughly half as much as platinum, for the catalyst.