Fuel cells are said to be the next big thing in the auto industry. In fact, they already are the next big thing. Fuel cells take advantage of the joining force between the oxygen and the hydrogen, and create electricity, used to drive anything (a car, more commonly). Price is a prohibitive variable in fuel cells market, and that’s what’s keeping them from becoming mainstream. Current versions of fuel cells use platinum as a catalyst for their operation, and, as most of the people know, platinum is an expensive metal.
Lin Zhuang, from the Wuhan University in Hubei, China, has studied and designed a new fuel cell membrane that can make the usage of platinum in fuel cells history. It is much more cheap and can also become more efficient than the membranes that require the use of the expensive metal. His newly developed membrane is alkaline, not acidic, and makes it possible to use nickel instead of platinum.
The new membrane can also be mixed with the catalyst itself (nickel), making the whole assembly more efficient, because the contact surface between them is increased.
Still, there are some issues with modifying the acidic conditions inside a fuel cell. Until now, liquids have been used, instead of solids, but they risked forming carbonate deposits, that can clog up the fuel cell. Zhang says: “There has hitherto been no commercial alkaline polymer electrolyte suitable for fuel cell use. Many are not stable at temperatures higher than 40°C, but most fuel cells require more extreme operational temperatures.”
Cheap hydrogen fuel cells could mean the end of combustion engine – slowly, but surely. Nickel is not the most environmentally friendly material to make the fuel cells of, but if recycled and used for a long time, it could reduce its impact on the surrounding nature to zero.