Hydrogen fuel cells are the next step forward for the automotive industry. With no carbon dioxide emissions, these fuel cells provide a sustainable way to move forward. However, fuel cells still require improvements before they can be widely adopted. Namely, researchers across the world are working on ways to increase the longevity and durability of fuel cells. Then, these resources can become fully sustainable.
The following scientific breakthroughs show the direction the automotive industry will eventually head in — one that centers fuel cells as the central power source for cars and trucks.
Platinum Surface Area Expansion
The use of platinum is one of the most critical elements for hydrogen fuel cells to operate. This usage, though, makes production of these vehicles expensive, since they typically require more platinum than the average gas-combustion vehicle. Now, a team of researchers is changing that dynamic.
A collaboration of researchers from the University of Copenhagen, the University of Bern, the Leibniz Institute for Plasma Science and Technology and the Paul Scherrer Institute shows that using less platinum is possible for creating a cheaper and more efficient hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.
The method changes the platinum-based catalyst in the vehicle. Since the platinum atoms can only activate on the surface of the catalyst, it’s not necessary to have the rest of the platinum go unused. Thus, the researchers have expanded the surface area of the platinum while only requiring a fraction of what these fuel cells originally needed.
In addition, the platinum particles then apply to a conducive carbon carrier, which researchers used a thin metal network for. The reaction facilitates an electrocatalyst and allows the cell to operate at higher temperatures and become more durable.
This reduced use of platinum is the key. With this method, manufacturers can scale up production of newer fuel cell vehicles and work towards more expansive sustainability.
Researchers at the Queen Mary University of London are exploring a new discovery where they use graphene as a catalyst. This step, on a wide scale, could help fuel cell vehicles become more affordable and durable.
A graphene catalyst adds strength to the setup, more so than standard and commercially ready catalysts currently do. Though platinum is still necessary for this method, the graphene cataclysm uses significantly less platinum than standard methods. The graphene serves as the main component and then uses platinum nanoparticles on its surface. That way, the platinum can still facilitate the reaction but has a more practical base.
Since experts can gather graphene from a layer of carbon atoms, it’s a more accessible solution. Thus, the durability and practicality make it a longer-lasting catalyst than the current methods.
A graphene-based approach could now help the automotive industry evolve in a sustainable way, from gas-powered vehicles to long-lasting hydrogen-powered ones.
Part of creating a sustainable hydrogen fuel cell vehicle entails ensuring that the system can operate under various conditions. Heat and dry environments are the two biggest challenges. A team of researchers from Los Alamos National Laboratory, University of Stuttgart, University of New Mexico and Sandia National Laboratories is working on a breakthrough with proton conduction to overcome those two challenges.
The proton conductor for the fuel cells comes from the base of polystyrene phosphonic acids that can create and uphold conductivity through 200 ˚C, without the requirement of water. This breakthrough would mean that hydrogen fuel cell production can work more efficiently to help decarbonize the entire industry, as the only byproduct is water.
Moving forward, the main challenge with proton conduction will be addressing the rejection of heat from the reactions of the fuel cell.
Working Towards Complete Sustainability
With these breakthroughs for longer-lasting fuel cell tech, the automotive industry is a few steps closer to complete sustainability. Achieving sustainability is always going to be an ongoing process, but with hydrogen fuel cell vehicles leading the charge, it also becomes more tangible every day.
Jane Marsh is the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co. Jane covers topics related to climate policy, sustainability, green technology, renewable energy and more.