What if by some engineering miracle one part within a conventional internal combustion engine was changed that would multiply its power output by a factor of 5 without burning additional fuel? A 100 horsepower engine would suddenly put out 500. The world would change. Engines would be smaller, lighter and presumably somewhat less expensive.
Unfortunately this miracle hasn’t happened. But it MAY have for proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells. (I emphasize the “may” because the breakthrough technology doesn’t appear to have been tested in a working, off-the-shelf, fuel cell.)
There’s one part within a fuel cell that literally makes it all come together. Appropriately named it’s the catalyst. The catalyst creates the opportunity for hydrogen to combine with oxygen to make water, and while doing so momentarily allows electrons to be borrowed as flowing electric current to do real work, like turning an electric motor to drive a car to the supermarket.
Catalysts are typically made of pricey platinum (but not very much of it) adding to the cost of fuel cells and encumbering their mass adoption into vehicles and other portable uses.
Hitachi Maxell, of Tokyo, thinks it has a new catalyst solution that would be a true breakthrough if it works in the real fuel cell world. The catalyst not only uses less platinum but dramatically increases electric current producing reactions by almost that factor of five eluded to above: It encourages 4.8 times the hydrogen-oxygen combinations than a typical commercial platinum catalyst of the same unit area. The more hydrogen and oxygen combinations a catalyst can encourage the more electrons will be available for use as flowing electricity.
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