Platinum Catalysts Are Outshined By Graphene Quantum Dots

A new graphene-based material could make fuel cell production a whole lot cheaper

2 min read
Platinum Catalysts Are Outshined By Graphene Quantum Dots
Image: The Tour Group/Rice University

Platinum is widely used as a catalyst for oxygen reduction reactions in fuel cells, but its high cost is a major obstacle to making fuel cell vehicles more affordable and more popular. Graphene, however, may be just what automotive and energy companies are looking for

Researchers from Rice University attached graphene quantum dots to a graphene base, resulting in a hybrid material that operates as an excellent– and cheap–catalyst for fuel cell reactions.

Quantum dots are nanocrystals that exhibit quantum mechanical properties, making them very useful in experimental transistors, solar cells, imaging chips, and other things. James Tour, a Rice chemistry professor, and his colleagues created graphene quantum dots (GQDs) from coal last year, and followed up on that breakthrough with this latest experiment.

This time, those same GQDs were combined with microscopic sheets of graphene into self-assembling nanoscale platelets. Tour explains that in the hybrid GQD/graphene material, the quantum dots provide a high abundance of edges where chemical reactions can occur, while the graphene is a plane of conductivity between GQDs. (The material was also treated with boron and nitrogen–co-catalysts.)

The lab discovered that the new material actually outperforms platinum-based catalysts for fuel cell reactions. Compared to platinum, the GQD/graphene material showed an oxygen reduction reaction with about 15 millivolts more in positive onset potential, or the start of the reaction. “You don’t need to apply as high a voltage as platinum to get the oxygen reduction reaction to occur,” says Tour. “We also get about 70 percent higher current than what platinum would offer.”

Increased efficiency aside, the hybrid material is also cheaper to make and install in fuel cells. The average cost of a fuel cell for an automobile has gone down from $275 per kW capability in 2002, to $55 per kW in 2013. Yet the fuel cell industry has yet to make a profit. The U.S. Department of Energy believes automotive fuel cell costs will need to fall to $30 per kW before we can expect to see real consumer interest. Toyota began selling its hybrid hydrogen fuel cell car in Japan this year for around $68,600. Unfortunately, with a 2014 Corolla going for between $16,000 and $21,000, fuel cell vehicles have yet to be noticed by most consumers.

The researchers believe the new findings, published in ACS Nano, could pave the way toward that goal. “This allows one of those two key reactions in the fuel cell to happen very well for the formation of water,” says Tour. “With fuel cells, the concern is always the cost of platinum electrode. This obviously needs no platinum electrode.”

However, Tour is very hesitant to say the fuel cell era is just over the horizon, and with good reason. “We don’t have an infrastructure as a country or global system for exploiting hydrogen-based systems well. You have to have a buy-in from everyone involved in that system for things to start taking off.”

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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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