Cleveland, Ohio – A new catalyst that outperforms platinum at a fraction of the cost may have the potential to bring down the price of fuel cells for electric vehicles, according to researchers.

A team of engineers at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio found that catalysts made of carbon nanotubes dipped in a polymer solution equal the energy output and otherwise outperform platinum catalysts in fuel cells. The researchers said they are certain they will be able to boost the power output and maintain the other advantages by matching the best nanotube layout and type of polymer. Their work has been published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Platinum currently sells for about US$65,000 per kilogram and represents at least a quarter of the cost of fuel cells, while the researchers said that their activated carbon nanotubes cost about $100 per kilogram.

In testing, a fuel cell using the nanotubes produced as much power as an identical cell using a platinum catalyst, but the researchers said that the activated nanotubes last longer and are more stable. Unlike platinum, the carbon-based catalyst does not lose its efficiency over time, is not fouled by carbon monoxide, and does not show a “crossover” effect with methanol, a liquid fuel that is easier to store and transport than hydrogen but which reduces the activity of a platinum catalyst when the fuel crosses from the anode to the cathode in a fuel cell.

The researchers called the nanotubes “a breakthrough” but said they have not optimized the system yet.

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