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Canadian and U.S. researchers drive toward cheaper fuel cells for electric cars


June 19, 2013
By Anthony Capkun

June 18, 2013 – A million electric cars could be on roads across North America before the end of the decade with the help of research by the University of Waterloo, U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) and Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Professor Zhongwei Chen of Waterloo’s Faculty of Engineering is part of a team led by the Los Alamos National Laboratory looking to develop non-precious materials to replace the expensive platinum catalysts in fuel cells.

“One of the biggest barriers to the adoption of fuel cells in vehicles is the cost of the units. The pure platinum needed for the catalysts in the cells contributes about 40% of the total cost,” said Chen. “Platinum is so expensive, and is obviously a limited resource, we have to find a way to replace it if fuel cell cars are going to succeed.”

An average fuel cell car requires about 30g of pure platinum to produce enough power to make them run, and will last for around 150,000 km. That amount of platinum is around $4000 at current prices, say researchers.

“Here at Waterloo we are using nanotechnology to create advanced, non-precious alternatives for platinum that are a fraction of the cost of platinum and yet provide comparable durability,” said Chen, who is also a member of the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology. “If we can find a suitable alternative to platinum, it could help pave the way for the motor industry to adopt hydrogen fuel cells for more than a million new vehicles by the end of the decade.”

Fuel cell vehicles have the potential to significantly reduce dependence on oil for transportation and lower pollution levels as they produce no greenhouse gases from their exhaust. However, the vehicles are currently too expensive and not durable enough to compete with conventional cars or hybrids.

DoE estimates that platinum-based catalysts need to use roughly four times less platinum than in designs to represent a realistic alternative to internal combustion engines.

Unique for a Canadian institution, the research is supported by a three-year grant of $4 million from DoE. Other members of the team led by Los Alamos are Carnegie Mellon University, University of Rochester and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, along with industrial partners IRD Fuel Cells Inc. and GM Corp.