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Cheap fuel ... when?

Paige Parker | Interrobang | News | April 11th, 2011

Tired of $1.29 for a litre of gas? In the next 10 years, gas prices will not be an issue, as researchers at the University of Western Ontario are developing a fuel cell technology to produce hydrogen gas.

"Hydrogen fuel cells are a really good source for the future," said Tanuj Duttu, an engineering student at Western. "It's completely renewable because there's water everywhere. And it doesn't really produce any major by-products other than water vapours."

But water vapours are still considered a greenhouse gas. "It can still be improved upon, I guess ... but it's definitely the best alternative right now," said Duttu.

Fuel cells are made up of water and hydrogen, using platinum as a catalyst. Although platinum works best as a catalyst, it is expensive. Dr. Andy (Xueliang) Sun is an associate professor at Western and the Canada Research Chair in Development of Nanomaterials for Energy. "We're trying to reduce the platinum amount and then reduce the fuel cell cost," he said.

Dr. Sun and his team designed platinum nanowires in place of platinum particles. Particles are inefficient because they bind quickly and then detach from the carbon black, which holds all the elements of the fuel cell together. Nanowires do not attach to one another, but they do eventually also detach from the carbon black molecule. Their slower reaction allows for a more efficient reaction rate.

Shuhui Sun is a Ph. D. student studying under Dr. Sun. "The long durability means that catalyst can be around longer time," explained Sun. "Compare that to commercial E-Tek catalyst, particle catalyst. Our platinum wire catalyst shows that it is five times better durability."

While the efficiency has increased by 60 per cent compared to fossil fuels at 20 to 30 per cent efficiency rate, the price is still an issue. Five milligrams of platinum costs $1,000 USD. Dr. Sun and his team have already tried to find a replacement for platinum, but unfortunately platinum is the best catalyst for the fuel cell. They are currently experimenting with ways to use less of this precious material.

They are also working on eliminating the carbon black molecule completely and attempting to produce the fuel cell with a cluster of nanowires. This way, the nanowires have nothing to detach from and can work at their most efficient rate.

If platinum continues to be used the way it is being used now, there is only enough to last 10 years. Dr. Sun says other challenges include hydrogen storage and hydrogen production for fuel cells.

California already has hydrogen gas stations. They have an agreement with industry partners in Canada for testing purposes. Dr. Sun and his team work in collaboration with other industry leaders such as GM, and he said he believes they will come up with an efficient low-cost formula within the next 10 years.
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