Schematic of the synthesis of the PANI catalyst

In a recent paper published in Science, a group of researchers has theorized that a non–precious metal catalyst, with performance that's claimed to be comparable to platinum-based systems, could some day end up in automotive fuel cells.

Los Alamos National Laboratory researchers Gang Wu, Christina Johnston and Piotr Zelenay, along with Karren More of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, describe the use of polyaniline (PANI) as a precursor to a carbon-nitrogen template for high-temperature synthesis of catalysts incorporating iron and cobalt. The team says that the carbon-iron-cobalt catalyst would effectively convert hydrogen and oxygen into water, producing less than one percent of undesirable hydrogen peroxide.

The team claims that the prohibitive cost of platinum has hindered the widespread use of fuel cells and suggests that this new catalyst, at least theoretically, could eliminate the need for costly precious metals. Piotr Zelenay, a co-author of the paper published in Science, said:
The encouraging point is that we have found a catalyst with a good durability and life cycle relative to platinum-based catalysts. For all intents and purposes, this is a zero-cost catalyst in comparison to platinum, so it directly addresses one of the main barriers to hydrogen fuel cells.
The next step in the team's research will be to gain an understanding of the mechanisms that form the basis of the carbon-iron-cobalt catalyst. Loads of additional research will need to be conducted before this potential breakthrough hits the road.

[Source: Green Car Congress, Los Alamos National Laboratory]

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