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Reducing the Cost of Fuel Cells

Most folks don’t realize the depth of the economic problem that fuels cells pose for mass adoption.  Often there are price quotes running in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.  That’s because the catalysts of choice are the noble metals platinum or palladium.  These are very rare metals, more so than gold and have considerable market presence already in the automotive field.

For a comparison, the common quote for the amount of iron mined in history is a cubic mile or 147,197,952,000 cubic feet.  Now platinum is more rare, the oft-heard quote is mining over history has turned out 25 cubic feet, a block 5 feet on each side, about 1/15 the amount of gold.  That’s a massive difference.

Curiously with the world economy slowed down the price of platinum is lower than gold, a situation that will not last when the economy does pick up either by demand or a drop in gold’s price from an increase in confidence.  The main industrial use is catalytic converters for automobiles – and increasing global automobile demand in emerging markets with an interest in pollution control will likely move prices higher.

Meanwhile palladium may become harder than platinum to acquire.  Russia produces 50% of palladium’s annual supply and Russia has been selling off strategic stockpiles.  In simple terms, the use of Russian palladium stockpiles for current use will turn up later as reductions of the amount available to the market.

Gold Platinum & Palladium Nuggets
Gold Platinum & Palladium Nuggets Shown Left to Right.

For now these are “cheap” as platinum trades 31% below its February 2008 high of $2,273 and palladium is trading 38% below its all-time high of almost $1,100 in January 2001.  That brings us to:

An Aalto University in Finland research team has developed a new and significantly cheaper method of manufacturing fuel cells by preparing nanoparticle metal catalysts for fuel cells by using atomic layer deposition (ALD).  The ALD method requires 60% less of the noble metals than current methods.

Docent Tanja Kallio at Aalto said, “This is a significant discovery, because researchers have not been able to achieve savings of this magnitude before with materials that are commercially available.”

The most commonly used fuel cells cover the anode with expensive noble metal powder, which reacts well with the fuel.  The Aalto study’s ALD method can cover the anode much thinner and more evenly than current production methods, which lowers costs and increases quality.

Palladium Preparation for ALD
Palladium Preparation for ALD. Image Credit: Adolfo Vera, Aalto University.

The Finn’s idea is to develop better alcohol fuel cells using methanol or ethanol as their fuel. It’s easier to handle and store alcohols than trying to use hydrogen. In alcohol fuel cells, it is also possible to use palladium as a catalyst.

As we noted above, for now platinum is about twice as expensive as palladium.  This means that alcohol fuel cells using palladium would offer a more economical product to the market.

Fuel cells are very efficient and can create electricity that produces very little or even no pollution, making more energy and requiring less fuel than other devices of equal size. They are also quiet and require low maintenance, because there are no moving parts.

When catalyst breakthroughs come and production costs can be lowered, fuel cells are expected to power electric vehicles and replace batteries, along with other jobs. Despite their current high price, fuel cells have already been used for a long time to produce energy in isolated environments, such as spacecraft.

The Aalto team’s results, published in the Journal of Physical Chemistry C. are based on preliminary testing with fuel cell anodes using a palladium catalyst. The Aalto team believes commercial production could start in 5-10 years.

Now if someone would find a huge palladium and platinum supply this would go big.

By. Brian Westenhaus

Source: A Partial Fix For the Fuel Cell Problem

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