Want a cheap hydrogen fuel cell? Wash out the platinum

A British company says it has slashed the cost of fuel cells for cars by replacing expensive metal with a catalyst from detergents.
Written by Mark Halper, Contributor
Cleans your clothes, powers your car. Liquid catalysts like those in detergents can also economically convert hydrogen into electricity for vehicles, according to ACAL.

Plenty of things are holding back the hydrogen economy. One of them is the cost of hydrogen fuel cells. A British company now says it has slashed costs by replacing platinum with a liquid that makes fuel cells affordable to automobile manufacturers.

The company, ACAL Energy, said in an email that it has developed its FlowCath catalyst with backing from "a leading car manufacturer" that it declined to identify.

Hydrogen fuel cells typically produce electricity by catalyzing oxygen and hydrogen. The conventional process relies on platinum, a rare and expensive metal. FlowCath gets rid of 80 percent of the platinum by using a liquid chemical catalyst inspired by detergent - an idea applied by co-founder Andy Creeth, who is a former chief scientist at soap seller Unilever.

The technology strips out 25 percent of costs "in mass market volumes" and "dramatically enhances the cell's longevity," the company said. That could be a key advantage, since platinum itself is known to provide durability. The technology can also help shrink fuel cells, which could make it easier to fit them into cars.

ACAL is not the only outfit trying to take the platinum out of fuel cells. Among others: A couple of U.S. Department of Energy teams are  working on it, one at Brookhaven National Laboratory and another at Los Alamos National Laboratory;  Brown University scientists have proposed a cobalt-graphene catalyst. Less recently, Monash University in Australia demonstrated a polymer catalyst, and Case Western Reserve University as well as the University of Dayton, both in Ohio, have shown how carbon nanotubes can work in place of platinum.

But Runcorn, England-based ACAL looks just about ready to go, noting that it's "in discussions with a number of major auto-makers" aimed at licensing the technology.

Three weeks ago, Ford, Renault-Nissan and Daimler joined forces to develop an affordable, mass market, hydrogen powered car by 2017. A UK government report earlier this month predicted that there could be 1.5 million hydrogen cars on British roads by 2030.

ACAL's backers include the unnamed auto company, as well as Belgian chemicals company Solvay and The Carbon Trust, a U.K. low carbon advisory group with strong ties to German industrial company Siemens.

It has hired a new CEO, Greg McCray, to oversee its licensing business model. McCray was CEO of Antenova, a British firm that provides antenna technology to smartphone and consumer electronics manufacturers.

Now, if only someone would license a way to economically obtain hydrogen in the first place. And transport it.

Image from Unilever

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