In order for the anode and cathodes in hydrogen fuel cells to survive, that is, do the job without degrading, they are covered with a material that needs to resist corrosion as well as conduct electricity. Unfortunately, some of the materials needed for such coatings, such as platinum, are expensive.
Additionally, the processes used are expensive as well. The use of platinum in fuel cells keeps the cost out of reach of the average consumer considering the technology, but a new process developed at the National Institute of Standards and Technology [NIST].
Thomas Moffat, an NIST metallurgy researcher, mentions the new method is “incredibly cheap and easy to implement,” which is good news for fuel cell developers. Similar to electroplating, which uses an electrical charge to deposit chemically dissolved elements, such as gold or nickel, the new process, instead, alternates the polarity to deposit platinum in single-atom layers on a gold substrate.
Alternating the polarity results in layers of platinum only one atom in thickness. With each negative charge, platinum atoms bond to the surface and hydrogen immediately forms, preventing further platinum deposition. The positive charge burns off the hydrogen, making the surface ready to accept another negative charge.
By controlling precisely the number of polarity switches, the precise thickness of the platinum layer can be effected. This level of control could also make the resulting fuel cell components much cheaper to produce, and possibly drive down the cost of a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.