Published on November 21st, 2013
by Tina Casey
CleanTechnica came this close to unraveling the mystery behind CellEra’s new platinum free fuel cell last week during a visit to the Fuel Choices Summit in Tel Aviv. Company officials weren’t giving away any secrets, unfortunately for us, but we did get a chance to see the new fuel cell first hand and we can tell you how it fits into the big picture of the emerging hydrogen economy.
The CellEra exhibit was part of an expo attached to the Fuel Choices Summit. The expo included a score of up-and-coming alternative fuel and mobility companies, showcasing technologies ranging from synfuels made from sunlight and carbon dioxide to a portable (as in, handy suitcase on wheels portable) electric scooter for multi-platform urban travel. We’ll try to get to some of those in a later post but for now, let’s dig into the platinum free fuel cell.
A Platinum Free Fuel Cell For Electric Vehicles
The CellEra fuel cell is designed for a variety of uses including electric vehicles and stationary purposes, but before we get to that let’s take a quick look at some recent history in fuel cell development.
The now-retired Space Shuttle used first generation alkaline fuel cell technology, which is all well and good for outer space and other uncontaminated environments. However, alkaline technology is highly susceptible to carbon dioxide “poisoning,” which makes it a costly endeavor here on Earth.
One second-generation solution has been PEM (polymer electrolyte membrane) fuel cells. The sticky wicket here is the catalyst that separates the electrons and protons in hydrogen. Typically it’s made with platinum, which costly because it is platinum, and extra costly because it is sensitive to carbon monoxide poisoning and requires additional systems to prevent that.
CellEra has come up with a fuel cell that deploys a catalyzed, solid polymer electrolyte (polymer refers to a form of plastic) which renders platinum unnecessary, hence the name Platinum-Free Membrane (PFM)
As described by CellEra, platinum is unnecessary because the polymer electrolytes conduct hydroxyl ions rather than protons. That means the PFM cell is mildly alkaline, which enables the use of a low cost transition metal catalyst rather than a noble metal such as platinum.
Which transition metal? That’s a good question, so we asked it. The answer given to us by company officials at the expo is simple: that is a secret. Oh, well.
For an added bonus, the alkaline environment is non-corrosive, enabling PFM cells to use a light weight aluminum infrastructure.
But wait, there’s more. Also contributing to lower costs is a conducting membrane made of a relatively inexpensive polymer.
The Hydrogen Economy
If the back of your neck started tingling when you heard “hydrogen,” join the club. Hydrogen fuel cells run on hydrogen, and a main source of industrial hydrogen currently is natural gas, which opens up a raft of issues relating to the impacts of fracking (a natural gas drilling method).
Those impacts range from local air and water pollution to earthquakes, fugitive methane emissions (methane is a potent greenhouse gas), and fracking wastewater disposal issues as well as direct economic impacts on and near fracking sites.
CellEra suggests ammonia as a source for hydrogen, but that only defers the problem, since industrial ammonia is produced mainly from natural gas and to some extent from petroleum sources.
However, looking ahead to the near future, far more sustainable methods of hydrogen production are already in the works, which will take hydrogen fuel cell companies like CellEra up to the next level.
Among the more interesting projects we’ve been following is a major municipal wastewater-to-hydrogen demonstration project in California partnering up Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory with the company Chemergy.
In an interesting twist, another wastewater themed project in Colorado deploys a microbial fuel cell as part of a low cost treatment process that produces hydrogen as a byproduct.
Landfill gas and other renewable forms of renewable alternatives to natural gas are another promising avenue for sustainable hydrogen manufacturing.
On top of that you have a whole raft of RD projects deploying solar power to produce hydrogen from water, ranging from a relatively affordable “artificial leaf” designed for household use to the potential for cost-effective commercial production of renewable hydrogen.
The Fuel Choices Summit
By the way, the aforementioned Fuel Choices Summit in Tel Aviv comes under the umbrella of Israel’s national Fuel Choices Initiative, which is aimed specifically at reducing the country’s dependence on oil for transportation.
Given Israel’s growing reputation as a friendly environment for tech start-ups along with its relatively small domestic market, the Fuel Choices Initiative also aims to export Israeli solutions to help meet global challenges, particularly in developing countries.
This week we covered some of the country’s solar power demo projects in the Arava region. Solar development in that area is expected to achieve 100 percent energy independence for the tourist city of Eilat and surrounding desert communities within a few years, with obvious implications for solar power in other desert environments around the globe.
Next week we’ll talk about some of the exportable low tech and DIY solutions that we got a chance to see in Israel, in the course of a tour sponsored by the Israeli organization Kinetis.
About the Author
Tina Casey Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.