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Fueling the Green Dream Car

A team of Binghamton researchers is working hard to bring fuel cell power to the people.

A fuel cell is like a magical battery that only produces two things: powerful energy and pure water. So why aren’t we all driving fuel cell cars from our fuel cell-powered homes to our fuel cell-powered offices?  

Turns out there’s a very good reason. A million of them to be exact.

“Right now a fuel cell car costs about $1 million,” says Chuan-Jian Zhong, professor of chemistry at Binghamton and lead researcher in a project to lower the cost of manufacturing fuel cells.  

Like batteries, fuel cells produce energy through an internal chemical reaction. In this case, the reaction is hydrogen and oxygen cells joining to make water. But you can’t just throw hydrogen and oxygen cells in the same room and tell them to make water. There needs to be a catalyst to speed up the reaction. In most fuel cells, that catalyst is platinum.

“Platinum is the best fuel cell catalyst and also the worst,” explains Zhong. Not only is platinum twice as expensive as gold, but it’s incredibly rare. Experts estimate that if fuel cells were in full production, we would exhaust the world’s platinum reserves in 10 years.

The traditional approach to stretching the power of platinum has been to blend pure platinum with cheaper metals like nickel and iron to create an alloy. Researchers have developed platinum alloys that work even better than pure platinum, but they’re still not efficient enough or stable enough for mass fuel cell production.

Zhong, an expert in the emerging field of nanotechnology, thinks that the best way to make big strides in fuel cell efficiency is to think small. Really small. Nanotechnology uses chemical processes to build manmade molecular structures 10,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.

The trick with a fuel cell catalyst like platinum, says Zhong, is to maximize the surface area available to the chemicals. If you flatten one gram of pure platinum it will create enough surface area to produce a scant amount of fuel cell energy. But if you take that same gram of platinum and crush it into a nano-sized powder, you increase the surface area by one million times. What’s more, the nano-sized powder could also exhibit unique chemical and catalytic properties that are significantly improved from those of the bulk-sized counterpart. That will crank out some serious juice.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded Zhong a $1 million grant as part of its Nanoscale Interdisciplinary Research Team (NIRT) program. With a little help from Zhong, the first moderately priced fuel cell cars could be rolling into dealership lots in five to seven years. Don’t hold your breath, though. You’ll hog the hydrogen.

Find out more about Zhong’s lab and the exciting work of students and faculty in the Chemistry Department.

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Last Updated: 6/17/09