Researchers at Stanford University in Northern California have developed what they are calling “unzipped carbon nanotubes” to replace catalytic platinum in fuel cells. Today’s price of platinum is between $1400 and $1500 per ounce.
Carbon nanotubes and graphene, on the other hand, are relatively cheap to produce. This low price could lead to wide spread commercialization of hydrogen fuel cells.
According to Stanford, “Multi-walled carbon nanotubes riddled with defects and impurities on the outside could eventually replace some of the expensive platinum catalysts used in fuel cells and metal-air batteries …
“… Over the past five years, the price of platinum has ranged from just below $800 to more than $2,200 an ounce. Among the most promising low-cost alternatives to platinum is the carbon nanotube – a rolled-up sheet of pure carbon, called graphene, that’s one atom thick and more than 10,000 times narrower a human hair. Carbon nanotubes and graphene are excellent conductors of electricity and relatively inexpensive to produce.
“For the study, the Stanford team used multi-walled carbon nanotubes consisting of two or three concentric tubes nested together. The scientists showed that shredding the outer wall, while leaving the inner walls intact, enhances catalytic activity in nanotubes, yet does not interfere with their ability to conduct electricity.”
The researchers found that impurities of iron and nitrogen actually aided in the catalytic process rather than inhibit it. These carbon nanotubes were found to have the same catalytic and conductive power as platinum, providing a potent replacement.
Like any laboratory study, refinements will have to be made and several more tests conducted before carbon nanotubes head down the path of field trials and then to commercialization. But, this is an exciting first step down that path.