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Nanotech may make hydrogen fuel cell more efficient

Gold nanoparticles coated with a thin layer of platinum may make hydrogen fuel cells more efficient, finds an IISc study. Such small spikes in efficiencies take us closer to affordable hydrogen fuel, which is considered as a cleaner replacement to conventional fuels.

A car running on hydrogen fuel was made in 2008 itself, but the automobile industry hasn't been able to commercialise the technology. This is because, among other issues, the cost of production of such a vehicle remains too high. However, in a warming world with rapidly depleting fossil fuel sources, we need to tap cleaner and renewable sources of energy to drive our lives. A Fuel cell, much like a battery, converts chemical energy into electrical energy, which could then be used to power electrical devices like a motor. A motor converts electrical energy into mechanical energy. For example, motor makes fan blades spin and electric cars move. However, unlike a conventional battery, a fuel cell needs a continuous supply of hydrogen and oxygen. When fully developed, cars running on fuel cells, fill their tanks with hydrogen, instead of petrol or diesel. Such vehicles spit out water vapor, not the gases that spoil our environment.

Scientists know that platinum can not only make great jewelry, but also speeds up the chemical reaction in a fuel cell. It makes hydrogen and oxygen to combine faster, and produce energy and water vapour. The IISc team has discovered that gold nanoparticles covered with two atom layer thick platinum cover, results in better utilization of platinum. In effect, this reduces the amount of platinum required, and hence makes the whole process more economical.

Apart from fuel cells Platinum is used in other devices like Catalytic Converter, a vehicle emission control device that converts toxic exhaust fumes to a less toxic form. Replacing the Platinum with Au@Pt nanoparticles could improve the efficiency of such devices as well. Although it’s going to be long before we will be seeing a fuel cell powered car, breakthroughs like these take us closer to a commercially viable Zero Emission Vehicle.

About the authors:

V Kumaran is a Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Venugopal Santhanam is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, Indian Institute of Science. Dr. Ipshita Banerjee was a PhD student in V Kumaran’s and V Santhanam’s Research groups in the Department of Chemical Engineering, IISc.

Contact: venu@chemeng.iisc.ernet.in; kumaran@chemeng.iisc.ernet.in

The Paper was published in The Journal of Physical Chemistry C. Au@Pt nanoparticles