Hydrogen fuel cells have a lot to recommend them. Fuel cells consume air and hydrogen and produce nothing but water and electricity. They provide a mechanism to get an electric vehicle with the type of range that drivers have come to expect along with the rapid re-fueling they are used too. Unfortunately, they have some serious drawbacks, namely the problem of distributing and storing the hydrogen as well as the high cost of the fuel cells themselves. A major factor in the cost is the need for precious metal catalysts to trigger the reaction that causes the electrons to be stripped off the hydrogen atoms.
The precious metals are needed because of their ability to survive the acidic environment created by the presence of ionic hydrogen. Lin Zhuang of Wuhan University in China has developed a different fuel cell using a nickel catalyst on the anode. This catalyst triggers the generation of hydroxyl (OH) ions which are alkaline. Unfortunately, the current polymer membranes can't conduct these hydroxyl ions so the Chinese researchers developed a new membrane material that can pass these ions. The team also added chromium to the nickel to help prevent oxidation of the catalyst. So far, the power outputs being achieved are low but this is definitely a research path that has some potential for reducing the cost of the cells. Thanks to Martin for the tip!

[Source: Technology Review]

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