Researchers claim fuel cell breakthrough

Researchers claim fuel cell breakthrough
A Chevy Volt charger is displayed at the Chicago Auto Show at McCormick Place in Chicago on February 9, 2011. UPI/Brian Kersey | License Photo

CLEVELAND, March 22 (UPI) -- U.S. researchers say they've made a breakthrough in the development of low-cost hydrogen fuel cells that one day could power electric cars.

Researchers at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland say catalysts made of carbon nanotubes dipped in a polymer solution can outperform traditional platinum catalysts in fuel cells at a fraction of the cost.


The scientists say the new technology can remove one of the biggest roadblocks to widespread cell use: the cost of the catalysts.

Platinum, which represents at least a quarter of the cost of fuel cells, currently sells for about $30,000 per pound, while the activated carbon nanotubes cost about $45 per pound, a Case release said Tuesday.

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"This is a breakthrough," Liming Dai, a professor of chemical engineering and the research team leader, said.

Soaking carbon nanotubes in a water solution of the polymer for a couple of hours coats the nanotube surface and pulls an electron partially from the carbon, creating a net positive charge, researchers said.

When placed on the cathode of an alkaline fuel cell, the charged material acts as a catalyst for the oxygen-reduction reaction that produces electricity by electrochemically combining hydrogen and oxygen.

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In testing, the researchers' carbon catalyst fuel cell produced as much power as an identical cell using a platinum catalyst.

Dai said he's confident his lab can increase the energy output of the new process.

"We have not optimized the system yet," he said.

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One widely researched use for such cells would be to produce electricity to power an electric car, using hydrogen and oxygen from the air. The only emission from such a vehicle, researchers say, would be water.

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