Washington, August 1 : Monash University scientists have achieved a breakthrough that may help make hybrid vehicles more reliable and cheaper to build.
In a research article in the journal Science, the researchers revealed that their advancement revolves around the design of a fuel cell in which a specially-coated form of popular hi tech outdoor and sporting clothing material Goretex is the key component.
The scientists say that they have designed and tested an air-electrode, where a fine layer - just 0.4 of a micron thick, or about 100 times thinner than a human hair - of highly conductive plastic is deposited on the breathable fabric.
According to them, the conductive plastic acts as both the fuel cell electrode and catalyst.
Monash University expert Dr. Bjorn Winther-Jensen believes that Goretex may revolutionise the motor industry in the same way it has given momentum to the outdoor clothing industry.
"The same way as waste vapour is drawn out of this material to make hikers more comfortable to less prone to hypothermia, so it is able to 'breathe' oxygen into our fuel cell and into contact with the conductive plastic," Dr. Winter-Jensen said.
Doug MacFarlane, a professor at the Australian Centre for Electromaterials Science (ACES), says that the discovery is probably the most important development in fuel cell technology in the last two decades.
"The benefits for the motoring industry and for motorists are that the new design removes the need for platinum, which acts as the catalyst and is currently central to the manufacturing process," Professor MacFarlane said.
"Our reliance on platinum is making the likelihood of using fuel cells in everyday passenger cars, increasingly improbable.
"The cost of the platinum component alone of current fuel cells for a small car with a 100kW electric engine is more than the total cost of an 100kW gasoline engine. Also current annual world production of platinum is only sufficient for about 3 million 100kW vehicles, less than one-twentieth of the current annual global production of vehicles," Professor MacFarlane added.
Professor Maria Forsyth, Director of ACES at Monash, said that the new design fuel had been tested for periods of up to 1500 hours continuously using hydrogen as the fuel source, without any sign of material degradation or deterioration in performance.
The researcher said that the test also confirmed that oxygen conversion rates are comparable with platinum-catalysed electrodes of the same geometry, and found electrodes are not poisoned by carbon monoxide the way platinum is.
"The small amounts of carbon monoxide that are always present in exhausts from petrol engines are a real problem for fuel cells because the platinum catalyst is slowly poisoned, eventually destroying the cell, "Professor Forsyth said.
"The important point to stress is that the team has come up with an alternative fuel cell design that is more economical, more easily sourced, outlasts platinum cells and is just as effective," the researcher added.