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Brookhaven Lab may have right spark for fuel cells

Scientist Dr. Jia Wang is shown with electron

Scientist Dr. Jia Wang is shown with electron microscope images of the nanocaytalysts that she and her team at Brookhaven National Lab are developing for use in hydrogen-powered vehicles. (May 22, 2013) Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

The next generation of fuel-efficient cars could be sparked by technology pioneered by chemists in Upton.


One of the biggest stumbling blocks to mass-producing hydrogen-powered vehicles has long been the tiny bits of platinum that trigger chemical reactions to convert the gas into electricity. Those little balls of precious metal are so expensive that hydrogen cars have remained prototypes and playthings for the rich.


So scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory figured out a way to make the spheres cheaper, using technological tricks to coat them with a platinum shell, just one atom thick.


"This technology is ready to be applied today, and it is cheaper and more powerful than anything on the market," said Radoslav Adzic, a senior Brookhaven chemist.


Last year, the laboratory struck an agreement with N.E. Chemcat Corp., a Japanese company, which is marketing the technology to Toyota, Nissan and other companies planning to roll out mass-market hydrogen cars in the next few years.


The concept of hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicles has been around for generations, and companies still face a slew of technological and infrastructural hurdles. (For starters, few gas stations sell hydrogen.)


The idea is to spark a reaction between hydrogen and oxygen to create electricity, which runs the motor. The byproduct, instead of toxic carbon emissions, is pure water. But developing the components for widespread use has required clearing repeated hurdles.


Few have proved as difficult to surmount as the platinum catalysts that trigger the chemical reactions.


Brookhaven began working on the project about 15 years ago. Adzic's team developed the idea of making the tiny spheres from a cheaper metal, palladium, then coating it with the more expensive platinum. The trick was making it happen.


Part of the challenge is that the spheres are small. Very small. So small that more than 100,000 of them could fit inside the period at the end of this sentence.


Using powerful microscopes and intense X-rays, the scientists realized they could dunk the palladium spheres in a copper solution, which acted like a glue allowing them to apply an ultrathin platinum coating.


With just a dusting of platinum, the tiny compounds turned out to be cheaper, more durable, and they deliver a more powerful kick.

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