A team of research scientists at Monash University in Australia have developed and tested a new kind of fuel cell that totally eliminates the use of platinum as a catalyst. This advance, which researchers there are calling the most significant in the past 20 years, has the potential to knock roughly $3,500-$4,000 off of the materials cost of an automotive-scale (100kW) fuel cell, thereby dropping its unit price by 50 percent or more. It also promises to make the cells easier to construct and more robust in operating mode.
The Monash system, which team member Professor Maria Forsythe notes would cost on the order of several hundred dollars, replaces the conventional platimum catalyst with one made from Goretex -- the breathable high-tech material used in sportswear -- that's been specially coated with a thin film of gold and a fine deposit (0.4 micron thick) of a highly-conductive plastic polymer called PEDOT, which is short for poly(3,4-ethylenedioxythiophene). This unique component, which serves as both the catalyst and as an electrode in the cell, is capable of carrying out chemical conversions at a rate on par with today's platinum-catalyzed systems.
So far, these new cells have undergone up to 1,500 hours of testing without showing any significant signs of deterioration. Another key advantage of the Monash design compared to conventional platinum cells is that it's non-metallic, which makes it impervious to the cumulative degradation caused by atmospheric carbon monoxide from the exhaust of cars with internal combustion engines. While large-scale commercialization of the Monash package is still some years away, it represents a breakthrough that could significantly shorten the critical path that ultimately leads to the Hydrogen Highway. (Photo courtesy Julie Fraser/Monash University)