Taking a break from rare, pricy platinum, Chinese engineers invented a less expensive fuel cell that replaces the typical platinum catalyst with a nickel substitute.
In every fuel cell, a noble metal is used as a catalyst to create protons and electrons from fuel and hydrogen atoms. The protons react with oxygen to create water, while the electrons form electricity. Because platinum remains stable when exposed to the highly acidic environment found near certain materials in the cell, platinum is traditionally accepted as the noble metal of choice. Although fuel cells are an environmentally-friendly and more efficient alternative to internal-combustion engines, which produce more heat, the cells refrained from rising in popularity. The high platinum price bears responsibility for dwindling interest in fuel cells, and some scientists set out for a simpler solution. An engineering team led by Lin Zhuang at Wahun University in China has possibly found the answer.
Zhuang’s team created a new “polymer electrolyte fuel cell” that is less corrosive and more efficient than the platinum-based variety, largely because the new membrane for the cell is non-alkali, not acidic. By avoiding noble metal catalysts and substituting chromium-plated nickel, the new cell is also cheaper. As long as engineers can create these nickel-based fuel cells on a wider scale, fuel cells could become more common in vehicles. Depending on the scientific results and the possibilities surrounding this study, the future for fuel cells could quickly take a positive turn.