Global Technology - February 2018

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Now, let’s examine the most important technological and scientific breakthroughs emerging from labs around the world.

The pathway to zero-emission vehicles has taken two forks, one toward battery electric cars like the Tesla and the other toward fuel-cell-powered automobiles like the Toyota Mirai.  At Business Briefings, we believe that fuel-cell vehicles are the way to go, because they best preserve the advantages of gasoline automobiles: low upfront cost, long driving range and fast refueling.  But to achieve this, a new fuel-cell technology may be necessary.

To make fuel-cell cars a cost-effective reality, the U. S. Department of Energy (or DOE) has set a system cost target of $30 per kilowatt, which translates into about $2,400 per car.  Right now, the cost for a polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cell (or PEMFC) is about $52 per kilo-watt. That’s a big improvement over where the technology, started but not yet good enough.

But now, according to a paper published in the journal Small, researchers at the University of California, Riverside, have developed an inexpensive, efficient catalyst material for a PEMFC, which turns the chemical energy of hydrogen into electricity and is among the most promising fuel cell types to power cars and electronics.

The catalyst developed at UCR is made of porous carbon nanofibers embedded with a compound made from a relatively abundant metal such as cobalt, which is more than 100 times less expensive than platinum.

A critical barrier to fuel cell adoption is the cost of platinum, which amounts to about $12 per kilo-watts in current designs.

Using a technique called electrospinning, the UC Riverside researchers made paper-thin sheets of carbon nanofibers that contained metal ions of cobalt, iron or nickel.  Upon heating, the ions formed ultrafine metal nanoparticles that catalyzed the transformation of carbon into a high-performance graphitic carbon.  Subsequently, the metal nanoparticles and residual non-graphitic carbon were oxidized, leading to a highly porous and useful network of metal oxide nanoparticles dispersed in a porous network of graphite.

In collaboration with a team at Stanford University, they determined that the new materials performed...

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