Motor city west
Right here in Burnaby we’re going to be making fuel cell stacks for hydrogen-powered cars in mass production facilities,” says SFU chemistry professor Steve Holdcroft, who also holds a joint position with the NRC Institute for Fuel Cell Innovation in Vancouver. Holdcroft is the Scientific Director of the Automotive Partnerships Canada Research Network in Low Platinum Fuel Cells. The group, which also includes SFU chemistry professor Michael Eikerling, just received $5M in federal funding over five years, plus in-kind contributions from industry of additional millions, to help Canada maintain its leading-edge position in this sector.
Holdcroft is referring to several fuel cell manufacturing initiatives to be located in the City of Burnaby. These involve Daimler, Ford, and Ballard Power Systems in a partnership under the AFCC Automotive Fuel Cell Cooperation Corp.; Mercedes-Benz; and Ballard Power Systems, who will manufacture fuel cell engines for buses. “These are very important steps leading to commercialization of hydrogen-powered cars,” he says. But a major hurdle remains: the cost of platinum metal needed to make fuel cells efficient.
Fuel cells work by combining hydrogen gas with oxygen from the air to produce nothing but pure water as exhaust and clean electricity for power. At the heart of every fuel cell is an advanced plastic membrane coated with a platinum catalyst. That’s where the production of electricity takes place. The membranes are arranged in a system of layers called stacks. The Holy Grail for fuel cell technology is the reduction or even the elimination of platinum, which is very expensive. “We have to reduce platinum levels to values that are equivalent to those in existing catalytic converters in conventional cars,” says Holdcroft.
Chemistry professor Steve Holdcroft (L) in a teleconference meeting with Eric Kjeang (R) on low platinum fuel cells.
The new research network will determine if the amount of platinum can be reduced or eliminated completely. Comprised of nine universities, including 17 faculty, the Network engages a dozen industries and government labs across Canada, making it Canada’s premier network for polymer membrane-based fuel cell research.
“Reducing the platinum requirement would have a huge impact on the wide scale deployment of fuel cells, and thus on our ability to reduce our carbon footprint and our dependency on fossil fuels,” says Holdcroft. But solving this problem requires more than engineering. Ideally, the industry would like a completely new, less expensive catalyst, and this requires fundamental chemistry research at the molecular level. Holdcroft expects that advances in nanotechnology, the use of new platinum alloy materials, and new forms of carbon may be part of the solution.
“The way to solve these issues is to work together as a team,” he says. With that in mind, Holdcroft has created a network within Canada and around the world to make a breakthrough. He believes the Network’s combined knowledge of the behaviour and properties of materials and molecules will lead to technological advances. SFU is well positioned for the challenge, due to in-house materials science expertise and the availability of advanced equipment in 4D Labs.