Toyota claims hydrogen fuel cell breakthrough

Automaker's Microscopic Discoveries Show Rate Of Platinum Degradation

  • Image Credit: Drew Phillips
Platinum isn't cheap. And it's a necessary component of hydrogen fuel-cell technology. Which means that Toyota's recent discovery of a way to better analyze how platinum breaks down is a bit of an H2 vehicle breakthrough.

Toyota worked with the Japan Fine Ceramics Center (JFCC) to observe nanometer-sized platinum particles and, specifically, how they deteriorate. Platinum is used as a catalyst for when electrons are stripped away from the hydrogen molecule to create an electrical charge and when hydrogen ions and electrons mix with oxygen to create water vapor. So, when platinum gets more course during the countless chemical reactions inside of fuel cells, things slow down.

Now that Toyota says it's figured out a better way to observe this process, greater efficiency and durability within the fuel-cell process of electricity production are likely to follow, though more chemistry study will be needed to figure out how that will work.

Still, it's topical because Toyota last year started producing the world's first production hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle. The Japanese automaker debuted sales of the Mirai fuel-cell vehicle in Japan late last year and plans to start selling the car in California this fall (the car will be priced at $57,500). Toyota also plans to boost Mirai production to about 2,000 units in 2016 from about 700 this year. Take a look at Toyota's documents and video below.

Toyota Platinum Observation

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R&D Breakthrough Sets Stage for More Efficient, Durable Fuel Cell Stacks

Toyota City, Japan, May 18, 2015—A breakthrough in the real-time observation of fuel cell catalyst degradation could lead to a new generation of more efficient and durable fuel cell stacks.

Toyota Motor Corporation and Japan Fine Ceramics Center (JFCC) have developed a new observation technique that allows researchers to monitor the behavior of nanometer-sized particles of platinum during chemical reactions in fuel cells, so that the processes leading to reduced catalytic reactivity can be observed.

Platinum is an essential catalyst for the electricity-producing chemical reactions occurring between oxygen and hydrogen in fuel cell stacks. Reduced reactivity is the result of "coarsening" of platinum nanoparticles—a process whereby the nanoparticles increase in size and decrease in surface area. Up until now, however, it has not been possible to observe the processes leading to coarsening, making it difficult to analyze the root causes.

The new observation method can enable discovery of the points on the carbon carrier where platinum coarsens, as well as level of voltage output during the coarsening process. The method can also help determine the different characteristics of various types of carrier materials. This all-aspect analysis can provide direction to R&D focused on improving the performance and durability of the platinum catalyst, and of the fuel cell stack.
Background of research activities

Fuel cells generate electricity through the chemical reaction of onboard hydrogen gas with airborne oxygen. More specifically, each individual cell generates electricity through the chemical reaction between each oxygen cathode and hydrogen anode, with water produced as a byproduct.

During the chemical reaction, hydrogen molecules are separated into electrons and hydrogen ions at the hydrogen anode, where the platinum catalyst strips away the electrons from the hydrogen molecule. The electrons travel to the oxygen cathode, generating electricity to power the motor. Meanwhile, the hydrogen ions cross a polymer membrane to reach the oxygen cathode, where water is produced as a byproduct of hydrogen ions and electrons being exposed to airborne oxygen. Platinum also functions as the catalyst for this reaction.

Platinum is essential for electricity generation in fuel cells, playing a vital role in increasing fuel cell electricity generation efficiency.

However, platinum is scarce and costly. Furthermore, as electricity is generated, platinum nanoparticles coarsen, thereby decreasing fuel cell output. In order to prevent coarsening and maintain catalytic performance, the behavior underlying the coarsening process must be identified. However, the minute scale of the platinum nanoparticles renders observation via conventional means difficult.
Features of the newly developed observation technique

The conventional method of platinum nanoparticle observation is a fixed-point comparison of pre-reaction platinum particles with post-reaction particles. Through this method, it was discovered that post-reaction platinum nanoparticles are coarser with reduced reactivity. But, the causes of this reduction can only be hypothesized due to the inability to observe the behavioral processes leading up to the coarsening.

In contrast, the new observation technique involves a new scaled-down observable sample that can simulate the exact environment and conditions occurring in fuel cells. This, in addition to a newly developed method of applying voltage to samples mounted inside a transmission electron microscope, allows the coarsening process to be observed in real-time at all stages as electricity is generated. A transmission electron microscope is a microscope capable of observation and analysis of atomic-sized (0.1 nm) materials.

Toyota Fuel Cell Stacks Breakthrough

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