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New catalyst gives boost to fuel cells: UW-Madison scientists played role
[March 25, 2008]

New catalyst gives boost to fuel cells: UW-Madison scientists played role

(Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Mar. 25--University of Wisconsin-Madison scientists have developed a chemical catalyst that could help pave the way for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

With fuel cells, a small chemical reactor converts hydrogen and oxygen into electricity, water and heat. When used to run a car, the only exhaust coming from the vehicle's tailpipe is water.

The catalyst developed by UW-Madison in collaboration with the University of Maryland increases a fuel cell's efficiency by purging carbon monoxide from the hydrogen fuel supply before it enters the reaction chamber. Small amounts of carbon monoxide are "poison" to the expensive platinum catalyst that runs the fuel-cell reaction, said Manos Mavrikakis, a UW-Madison chemical and biological engineering professor involved in the research.

"We came up with a new material, a catalyst, that will cleanse carbon monoxide from hydrogen at room temperature," saving large amounts of energy, Mavrikakis said. "We were wasting energy before."

The research from the UW-Madison professor and Bryan Eichhorn, a University of Maryland chemistry professor, was published last week in Nature Materials, the leading journal of materials research.

One day, it could be common for fuel cells to create electricity by consuming hydrogen generated from renewable resources. For now, most of the world's hydrogen supply is derived from fossil fuels such as natural gas in a process called reforming.

In that process, a conventional catalyst must be heated to 158 degrees to strip carbon monoxide from the hydrogen. But with the UW-Madison catalyst, similar results could be obtained at room temperature, saving energy that could be used to generate electricity rather than wasted heat.

The research could help speed up the development of fuel cells for a plethora of applications, including automobiles and residential power generators.

"We don't want to oversell it. But this is all coming from fundamental science, not black art or trial-and-error discovery," Mavrikakis said.

It's too early to say whether the research is a commercial breakthrough, said Bob Stokes, executive director of the U.S. Fuel Cell Council, an industry trade group based in Washington, D.C.

"It's well known how to strip carbon monoxide from hydrogen fuel supplies. But any time we can do that with less energy and more cheaply, the better off we are going to be," Stokes said.

Almost all of the major automobile manufacturers are planning some type of fuel cell vehicles. Honda Motor Co. is already leasing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, in small numbers, in California.

But technical challenges must be overcome before the vehicles can be sold in mass quantities.

The UW-Madison research appears to have addressed one of the key challenges from carbon monoxide, a contaminant of the hydrogen fuel supply, said Scott Samuelsen, director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center in Irvine, Calif.

Hydrogen fuel cells use a large amount of platinum, a precious metal, to trigger the electrochemical process. The UW-Madison catalyst was created by using platinum and ruthenium -- a less expensive metal.

It's a good idea to reduce the amount of platinum needed, according to Samuelsen.

"Using fuel cells for things like automobiles is a terrific idea, and we are heavily engaged in that research. But if it requires a precious metal (platinum) that is in limited supply around the world, then it might not have as much success," Samuelsen said.

Modine Manufacturing Co. in Racine has worked with fuel cell developers that have ties to Ford Motor Co. and others.

Modine has developed a heating and cooling system for diesel trucks that uses a hydrogen fuel cell for power.

Often, truckers leave their engines running so they can power the heating and cooling systems for their sleeper cabs. But idling engines are a waste of fuel and a source of air pollution.

Modine combined a fuel cell from a Canadian firm, General Hydrogen Corp., with a carbon-dioxide based heating and cooling system that it developed in Racine.

The fuel cell can power a truck's heating and cooling system for 10 continuous hours using compressed hydrogen gas -- available at welding shops -- as its fuel. The only byproducts are heat, water and nitrogen.

The UW-Madison research could be a stepping stone to further developments in the field of alternative fuels, said Mark Baffa, director of Modine's fuel cell products group.

"These are the kinds of breakthroughs that we look for to find pathways to what can truly be commercially viable," Baffa said.

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