Significant breakthrough achieved in hydrogen fuel cell technology

The Schulich School of Engineering’s research team has made a significant advancement toward developing more efficient fuel cells that can produce power from hydrogen.

Interest in using hydrogen to generate clean electricity has exploded recently as worry over climate change grows. For hydrogen to be widely used in transportation, material handling (like forklifts), backup power, and other applications, fuel cells are a key enabler. Additionally, Schulich is a leader in the creation of the upcoming fuel cell technology.

Professor of chemical and petroleum engineering and associate director of the Calgary Advanced Energy Storage and Conversion Research – Technologies Group, Dr. Kunal Karan, MSc’94, PhD’99, claims, “We obtain higher performance using less catalyst.”

In their article, “Designing Fuel Cell Catalyst Support for Superior Catalytic Activity and Low Mass-Transport Resistance,” which was published in Nature Communications, Karan and his colleagues explain how to, as they put it, “get more out of less.” “A new catalyst is not available. With our improved catalyst structure, you get a lot more action, claims Karan.

Platinum is a valuable metal that is used in fuel cells as a catalyst to start a chemical reaction. A catalyst support must be connected to the catalyst. By utilizing a larger catalytic support, a 130-nanometer carbon particle rather than a 30-nanometer one, the researchers disproved a 30-year-old paradigm (a nanometre is one-billionth of a meter).

“Consider the catalyst support to be a soccer ball, with precious metal particles sprinkled on top; this is where all the electrochemical reactions take place. For more than 30 years, the “soccer ball size “was fixed, claims Karan.

The surface chemistry of the catalyst support was also altered by the researchers. The surface design of the new catalyst support “spaces out the catalyst — far enough to not compete for food (and) oxygen, but not too far to leave the unutilized surface,” according to Karan. “Just like we space plants apart so that they don’t compete with each other, yet they are close enough that the ground is maximally utilized.”

Global interest in fuel cell technology is rising
In recent years, nearly all of the OEC&D’s member nations, including Canada, the U.S., Australia, Japan, and the European Union, have introduced hydrogen policies. Fuel cell-powered long-haul trucks are in testing or advanced production at companies like Volvo, Cummins, Hyundai, Hyzon, and Nikola Motors, and Plug Power is developing hydrogen ecosystems to serve enormous corporations like Amazon and Walmart (including using fuel cells in forklifts at Walmart’s distribution center just north of Calgary).

Cost, performance, and durability are said to be the “three foundations for the success of any technology,” according to Karan. One of the major technical problems is lowering the cost, which is necessary for the widespread use of fuel cells. The use of pricey platinum is responsible for the majority of the costs, and we utilize platinum more effectively.

Although this research focuses on improved performance and reduced costs, Karan notes that making robust fuel cells “remains a challenge.” From supplying gasoline for personal vehicles to building fuel cells for long-haul, heavy-duty trucks, the durability goals have substantially grown. That issue is also being addressed by Karan and his research associates.

He says, “I hope we will have something extremely exciting to share shortly,” and in the meanwhile, the study that has already been published will help in the development of high-performance electrodes of the future.

An Eyes High student provided important information
Dr. Naoshad Islam, Ph.D. ’20, graduate student Abdul Bashith Mansoor Basha, Dr. Vinayaraj Ozhukil Kollath, DSc, and Karan are all Schulich scholars who contributed to the work.

As a former postdoctoral fellow at Eyes High, Kollath contributed his biomaterials expertise to the development of the catalyst support material, and Islam contributed his expertise in synthetic chemistry to the conversion of the support material into a functional catalyst. They exhibited the extraordinary qualities of the catalyst in a benchtop fuel cell prototype while working with Basha.

According to Karan, “the seeds for this study were planted from insights gained in my fuel cell research over the past two decades and brought to fruition with Kollath’s biomaterials and Islam’s synthesis expertise.” This is an illustration of the transfer of information from one field to another. That is the appeal of receiving unrestricted funding—such as Eyes High Scholarships—to pursue original research concepts.