Manufacturing News from the Engineered Designer Perspective

Waterloo researchers seek cheaper fuel cells for electric cars


Researchers at several US and Canadian academic institutions, with key industrial partners, are collaborating in a quest to make a cheaper fuel cell for electric cars. If they succeed, the lead Canadian researcher says, there could be a million electric cars on the roads of North America by the end of this decade. The work is being led by Los Alamos National Laboratory, under the authority of the US Department of Energy. The Canadian partner in the project is the University of Waterloo in Ontario.

The high cost of platinum, which is used as the catalyst in fuel cells, is a barrier to widespread adoption. Researchers at Waterloo university are searching for a viable nanotechnology alternative to platinum. General Motors is an industrial partner in the effort.

A major barrier to the widespread adoption of fuel cells in vehicles is the high cost, according to Professor Zhongwei Chen of the University of Waterloo. The cells typically use platinum as the catalytic agent, and that contributes about 40 per cent of the cost, Chen said. An average fuel cell for a car needs 30 grams of pure platinum, which will produce enough power to run the car for 150,000 kilometres. But the platinum costs about $4,000 at today’s prices.

“Platinum is so expensive, and is obviously a limited resource, we have to find a way to replace it if fuel cell cars are going to succeed,” said Chen.

The Waterloo researchers are working with nanotechnology to create “non-precious” alternatives to platinum at a “fraction” of the cost but with comparable durability. If they are successful, Chen says, it could help “pave the way” for the motor industry to adopt hydrogen fuel cells in a major way. A million new electric cars by the end of the decade could be a realistic outcome.

While fuel cell vehicles have the advantages of producing no greenhouse emissions and reducing dependence on fossil fuels, there is no fuel cell available today that can compete with conventional cars in terms of cost and durability. The US Department of Energy estimates that a platinum-based fuel cell would have to use four times less platinum than is currently used if they are to make a realistic alternative to the internal combustion engine. But Professor Chen and his group aim to eliminate the platinum altogether.

General Motors has been working on developing new fuel cell technology for several years. The company set up a special lab in 2007, with several hundred fuel cell engineers to work on the technology. GM is one of the industrial partners in the current research.

The Waterloo research effort has support through a $4 million grant from the US Department of Energy. Other members of the team, led by Los Alamos National Laboratory, are Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Rochester, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. IRD Fuel Cells and General Motors are industrial partners in the project.


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