Stop the Presses: NIST Finds a Way to Measure Fuel Cell ‘Printing’ at a Fast Clip

October 10, 2017 -

Source: NIST

If you’re wondering when a hydrogen-powered car will become a viable option for you, take heart. A team including scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) may have overcome a significant hurdle to manufacturing hydrogen fuel cells by creating a way to check whether the expensive catalysts the cells need have been incorporated quickly and effectively. Improved measurement methods are key to bringing hydrogen power a step closer to economical mass production.

 Hydrogen vehicles have not conquered the road like electric ones have yet, but it’s not for lack of efficiency or environmental friendliness. Hydrogen gas contains about three times as much energy by mass as fossil fuels do, and a fuel cell’s only byproduct is water. But, while filling a fuel tank with hydrogen is fast, building the engine is not, at least by industrial standards. A fuel cell requires thin layers of a platinum-based catalyst to convert hydrogen into electric energy, and the industry has lacked an efficient way to evaluate the layers’ properties. That lack is one reason only about 1,800 hydrogen vehicles(link is external) were on the road as of a year or so ago, and they can cost twice as much as a conventional vehicle.

The catalyst needs to end up as two thin layers on either side of a polymer sheet that resembles plastic wrap, so the industry’s approach has been to treat the catalyst like ink. The process mixes platinum particles with carbon to form a deep black fluid that even looks ink-like. Then a machine resembling a newspaper printing press lays the mixture down as the sheet unspools from a giant roll. The problem is that the platinum in this ink costs upwards of $35 per gram ($1,000 an ounce), so manufacturers need a way to make sure just enough is laid down to get the job done—and not one costly drop more. And the process has to be fast enough to make fuel cells for thousands of cars per year, meaning the plastic has to roll quickly.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of ASME.

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