Two teams have independently discovered ways to dramatically improve the materials used in the electrodes of fuel cells. Those developments could make the electricity-generating equipment more efficient, cheaper, and longer lasting, the researchers propose.
Fuel cells, like batteries, produce electric power via chemical reactions that occur on the surfaces of internal electrodes. Two problems that stand in the way of the widespread use of fuel cells are the high costs and short lifetimes of the electrodes, says Radoslav R. Adzic, a chemist at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y.
The precious metal platinum, a reaction-boosting catalyst that's often used to make or coat fuel cell electrodes, today costs about $36,000 per kilogram. Furthermore, "the platinum oxide layer that quickly forms on an electrode's surface dramatically slows down the chemical reactions there," says Adzic. Worse, the oxide layer tends to dissolve into the chemicals that bathe it, so that t