Hydrogen fuel cells to become cheaper and greener by using iron instead of platinum

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Researchers at the Imperial College London have developed a hydrogen fuel cell that uses iron instead of rare and costly platinum. This method would not only make hydrogen cells cheaper to produce, but also enable greater use of the technology.

Hydrogen fuel cells to become cheaper and greener by using iron instead of platinum
Photo credits @ Hyundai news (illustrative image)

Hydrogen fuel cells convert hydrogen to electricity with water vapour as the only by-product, making them an attractive green alternative for portable power, particularly for vehicles.

However, their widespread use has been hindered in part by the cost of one of the primary components. To facilitate the reaction that produces the electricity, the fuel cells rely on a catalyst made of platinum, which is expensive and scarce.

Now, a European team led by Imperial College London researchers has created a catalyst using only iron, carbon, and nitrogen — materials that are cheap and readily available — and shown that it can be used to operate a fuel cell at high power.

“Our cheaper catalyst design should make this a reality, and allow deployment of significantly more renewable energy systems that use hydrogen as fuel, ultimately reducing greenhouse gas emissions and putting the world on a path to net-zero emissions,” said lead researcher Professor Anthony Kucernak, from the Department of Chemistry at Imperial.

The team’s innovation was to produce a catalyst where all the iron was dispersed as single atoms within an electrically conducting carbon matrix. Single-atom iron has different chemical properties than bulk iron, where all the atoms are clustered together, making it more reactive, explained the researchers.

These properties mean the iron boosts the reactions needed in the fuel cell, acting as a good substitute for platinum. In lab tests, the team showed that a single-atom iron catalyst has performance approaching that of platinum-based catalysts in a real fuel cell system.

As well as producing a cheaper catalyst for fuel cells, the method the team developed to create could be adapted for other catalysts for other processes, such as chemical reactions using atmospheric oxygen as a reactant instead of expensive chemical oxidants, and in the treatment of wastewater using air to remove harmful contaminants.

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