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An Accidental Discovery Might Have Just Made Hydrogen Cars Affordable

But less bloody platinum is still bloody platinum.
July 21, 2013, 6:36pm
Mustang via John Lloyd/Creative Commons

The idea of fuel cells as a way to generate power predates cars and even the most general feat of constant electric current. William Grove first demonstrated the concept in 1839 with the Grove Cell, which turned two powerful acids into 1.9 volts of electricity with the help of strips of platinum and zinc. In the very beginning of the American telegraph system, the Grove Cell was the power source. It quickly fell out of favor when one of its byproducts, nitrogen dioxide, was found to be poisoning people.

The Grove Cell was the basis for Francis Thomas Bacon’s research a century later. Bacon traded acids for good ol’ oxygen and hydrogen, however, and in 1959 his cells were kicking out five kilowatts of power at 60 percent efficiency. A few years after that, the Bacon batteries were going into space as part of the Apollo program. With a total program price of around $24 billion, the cost of Bacon’s batteries (licensed by engine-maker Pratt and Whitney) was maybe not the chief concern.


But here we are another 50 years later and price is now the chief obstacle to replacing the internal combustion engine with hydrogen fuel cells. The production costs of Honda’s limited-run fuel cell car, the FCX Clarity, are estimated to be over $120,000 per vehicle, which is down from initial costs of over one million. You could get your own Learjet for that kind of money.

The issue is platinum, one of Earth’s rarest elements with a market value often double that of gold. Platinum is the material of choice for fuel cells; basically, oxygen and hydrogen are blown over thin sheets of the stuff. The platinum acts as a catalyst keeping the oxygen-hydrogen reaction going long enough to be useful. For a practical hydrogen-powered car it’s pretty necessary, though the still-expensive nickel has shown some promise.

There is some very good news for platinum-catalyzed hydrogen power today: a study out in the new issue of Nature Materials claims to have discovered a very simple alteration that could increase the electrical power delivered by the platinum cells by up to five times the current efficiency.

What we’re talking about is an advance that could drop the cost of hydrogen-powered cars into the price range of mere mortals. The discovery was an accident by a team based out of the University of Copenhagen: whereas films usually use granules of platinum spread over a certain area, here they were accidentally packed tightly. While the team was testing to see which granule size yielded the most power, they discovered that it’s actually that tightness that matters. The team admits this might not hold up as well in everyday situations, but “a marked reduction in platinum need is certainly realistic,” says researcher Matthias Arenz in a press release. “And that will be a huge financial advantage!”

All of this is pretty neat, but some ugly truths still linger. For one, platinum is still needed, and the element is sourced almost entirely in South Africa, where an all-out labor war is currently raging. Last August, 34 striking miners were killed when police opened fired on them. All for demanding a wage increase from $650 a month to $1,500 a month (some strikers were also carrying machetes, but still). And then there's the matter of hydrogen fuel stations, which only exist currently in limited number in southern California, though that's a big trivial compared to South Africa's bloody mines.

There are other ways of poisoning people beyond toxic substances.

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