Perspective on Fuel Cells

Fuel Cell CarFuel cells play a major role in creating a clean energy future, with a broad set of applications ranging from powering buildings to electrifying transportation. But, as with all emerging technologies, researchers have faced many barriers in developing affordable, efficient fuel cells and creating a way to cleanly produce the hydrogen that powers them.

In a new Perspective article, published in the Journal of The Electrochemical Society, researchers are aiming to tackle a fundamental debate in key reactions behind fuel cells and hydrogen production, which, if solved, could significantly bolster clean energy technologies.

In the open access article, “Perspective—Towards Establishing Apparent Hydrogen Binding Energy as the Descriptor for Hydrogen Oxidation/Evolution Reactions,” Yushan Yan and his coauthors from the University of Delaware provide an authoritative overview of work done in the areas of hydrogen oxidation and evolution, present key questions for debate, and provide paths for future innovation in the field.


Fuel CellNitrogen-doped carbon nanotubes or modified graphene nanoribbons could be effective, less costly replacements for expensive platinum in fuel cells, according to a new study.

In fuel cells, platinum is used for fast oxygen reduction, the key reaction that transforms chemical energy into electricity.

The findings come from computer simulations scientists created to see how carbon nanomaterials could be improved for fuel-cell cathodes. Their study reveals the atom-level mechanisms by which doped nanomaterials catalyze oxygen reduction reactions (ORR).

Doping with nitrogen

Boris Yakobson, a professor of materials science and nanoengineering and of chemistry at Rice University, and his colleagues are among many researchers looking for a way to speed up ORR for fuel cells, which were discovered in the 19th century but not widely used until the latter part of the 20th. Fuel cells have since powered transportation modes ranging from cars and buses to spacecraft.


Fuel CellApplying a tiny coating of costly platinum just 1 nanometer thick—about 1/100,000th the width of a human hair—to a core of much cheaper cobalt could bring down the cost of fuel cells.

This microscopic marriage could become a crucial catalyst in new fuel cells that use generate electricity from hydrogen fuel to power cars and other machines. The new fuel cell design would require far less platinum, a very rare metal that sold for almost $900 an ounce the day this article was produced.

“This technique could accelerate our launch out of the fossil-fuel era,” says Chao Wang, an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Johns Hopkins University and senior author of a study published in the journal Nano Letters.

“It will not only reduce the cost of fuel cells,” Wang says. “It will also improve the energy efficiency and power performance of clean electric vehicles powered by hydrogen.”


Fuel CellA closer look at catalysts is giving researchers a better sense of how these atom-thick materials produce hydrogen.

Their findings could accelerate the development of 2D materials for energy applications, such as fuel cells.

The researchers’ technique allows them to probe through tiny “windows” created by an electron beam and measure the catalytic activity of molybdenum disulfide, a two-dimensional material that shows promise for applications that use electrocatalysis to extract hydrogen from water.

Initial tests on two variations of the material proved that most production is coming from the thin sheets’ edges.

Researchers already knew the edges of 2D materials are where the catalytic action is, so any information that helps maximize it is valuable, says Jun Lou, a professor of materials science and nanoengineering at Rice University whose lab developed the technique with colleagues at Los Alamos National Laboratory.


Our guest today, James Fenton, is the director of the Florida Solar Energy Center at the University of Central Florida – the nation’s largest and most active state-supported renewable energy and energy efficiency institute.

Fenton is also the current secretary of the ECS Board of Directors.

Listen to the podcast and download this episode and others for free through the iTunes Store, SoundCloud, or our RSS Feed. You can also find us on Stitcher.


Researchers have created a way to look inside fuel cells to see the chemical processes that lead them to breakdown.

Fuel cells could someday generate electricity for nearly any device that’s battery-powered, including automobiles, laptops, and cellphones. Typically using hydrogen as fuel and air as an oxidant, fuel cells are cleaner than internal combustion engines because they produce power via electrochemical reactions. Since water is their primary product, they considerably reduce pollution.

The oxidation, or breakdown, of a fuel cell’s central electrolyte membrane can shorten their lifespan. The process leads to formation of holes in the membrane and can ultimately cause a chemical short circuit. Engineers created the new technique to examine the rate at which this oxidation occurs with hopes of finding out how to make fuel cells last longer.

Using fluorescence spectroscopy inside the fuel cell, they are able to probe the formation of the chemicals responsible for the oxidation, namely free radicals, during operation. The technique could be a game changer when it comes to understanding how the cells break down, and designing mitigation strategies that would extend the fuel cell’s lifetime.

“If you buy a device—a car, a cell phone—you want it to last as long as possible,” says Vijay Ramani, professor of environment & energy at the School of Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis.


Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) are taking a closer look at fuel cell catalysts in hopes of finding a viable alternative to the expensive platinum and platinum-group metal catalysts currently used in fuel cell electrodes. Developments in this area could lead to more affordable next-generation polymer electrolyte fuel cells for vehicles.

The research, led by ECS fellow Piotr Zelenay, looks at the fuel cell catalysts at the atomic level, providing unique insight into the efficiency of non-precious metals for automotive and other applications.

“What makes this exploration especially important is that it enhances our understanding of exactly why these alternative catalysts are active,” Zelenay says. “We’ve been advancing the field, but without understanding the sources of activity; without the structural and functional insights, further progress was going to be very difficult.”

This from LANL:

Platinum aids in both the electrocatalytic oxidation of hydrogen fuel at the anode and electrocatalytic reduction of oxygen from air at the cathode, producing usable electricity. Finding a viable, low-cost PGM-free catalyst alternative is becoming more and more possible, but understanding exactly where and how catalysis is occurring in these new materials has been a long-standing challenge. This is true, Zelenay noted, especially in the fuel cell cathode, where a relatively slow oxygen reduction reaction, or ORR, takes place that requires significant ‘loading’ of platinum.


GrapheneScientists have created a durable catalyst for high-performance fuel cells by attaching single ruthenium atoms to graphene.

Catalysts that drive the oxygen reduction reaction that lets fuel cells turn chemical energy into electricity are usually made of platinum, which stands up to the acidic nature of the cell’s charge-carrying electrolyte. But platinum is expensive, and scientists have searched for decades for a suitable replacement.

The ruthenium-graphene combination may fit the bill, says chemist James Tour, a professor of computer science and of materials science and nanoengineering at Rice University, whose lab developed the material. In tests, its performance easily matched that of traditional platinum-based alloys and bested iron and nitrogen-doped graphene, another contender.

“Ruthenium is often a highly active catalyst when fixed between arrays of four nitrogen atoms, yet it is one-tenth the cost of traditional platinum,” Tour says. “And since we are using single atomic sites rather than small particles, there are no buried atoms that cannot react. All the atoms are available for reaction.”


SOFC-XVThe 15th International Symposium on Solid Oxide Fuel Cells (SOFC-XV) is set to take place in Hollywood, FL, July 23-27, 2017.

This symposium will bring together scientists, engineers, and researchers from academia, industry, and government laboratories to share results and discuss issues related to solid oxide fuel cells and electrolyzers.


SOFC got its roots in 1989 when Subhash Singhal, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory Battelle Fellow, initiated the symposium. After 28 years, Singhal is taking the conference back to its birthplace, drawing scientists and engineers from around across the globe.

“We have formed a world-wide community of solid oxide fuel cell researchers,” Singhal says. “Before this symposium, people were scattered among different professional societies and different scientific disciplines. This conference has been instrumental in bringing everyone together.”


Fuel CellResearchers from Purdue University are making headway on solving issues in electrolyzers and fuel cell development by gaining new insight into electrocatalysts.

Electrocatalysts are key in promoting the chemical reactions that happen in both fuel cells and electrolyzers. However, while activating theses chemical reactions is crucial, the electrocatalysts tend to be unstable and can corrode when used in fuel cells and electrolyzers.

ECS member Jeffrey Greeley is looking to address this issue by identifying the structure for an active, stable electrocatalyst made of nickel nanoislands deposited on platinum.

“The reactions led to very stable structures that we would not predict by just looking at the properties of nickel,” Greeley says. “It turned out to be quite a surprise.”


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