Updated June 30 at 3:30pm

Brown team studying new fuel-cell catalyst

By Michael Souza
Contributing Writer
Imagine a future where almost all cars and houses are powered by a fuel cell, an electrical generator – not a battery – that has no pollutant emissions and does not use petroleum-based fuel. It’s been an idea for years, but difficult to make a mass-production reality due to certain constraints, including costs.

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Brown team studying new fuel-cell catalyst

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Imagine a future where almost all cars and houses are powered by a fuel cell, an electrical generator – not a battery – that has no pollutant emissions and does not use petroleum-based fuel. It’s been an idea for years, but difficult to make a mass-production reality due to certain constraints, including costs.

Scientists have worked on perfecting the technology to find an inexpensive way to mass-produce hydrogen fuel cells. Over the last year Brown University professor of chemistry Shouheng Sun and his research team have been encouraged by their efforts to make it a commonplace reality.

Fuel cells work by chemical reaction. They have two poles, an anode and a cathode, and each cell also has an electrolyte that carries charged particles from one electrode to the other, and a catalyst, which speeds the reaction. Hydrogen is the commonly used fuel. Rather than smoke, its byproduct is usually water. The cells generate direct current – DC – power but need to be stacked to generate enough power to be useful. The power must also be converted from DC to AC, the country’s electrical standard.

The field is still in its infancy but steadily growing. On Oct. 21, Toyota Motor Sales USA announced the activation of a new 1.1-megawatt hydrogen fuel-cell generator at its Torrance, Calif. facility. Believed to be the largest of its kind, the cell generates enough electricity to power 765 homes. The cell, consisting of thousands of stacks of individual cells, is the size of two tractor-trailer trucks.

Many other similar stationary units have been installed throughout the country. The units, however, are large and heavy and paid for through a variety of federal grants. Those using hydrogen as a fuel provide less than 1 MW of energy.

In 2002, Toyota manufactured its first fuel-cell vehicle, and has promised a mass-produced fuel-cell vehicle by 2015. Prototypes, however, have thus far resulted in a very compact automobile that could cost upwards of $50,000. The company admits there are still issues to be resolved and mass production could mean only 100 or so vehicles. Other car manufacturers are looking into similar automobiles. Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles include the Hyundai Tucson and Honda FCX Clarity as well as other cars, trucks, buses and military vehicles. Unfortunately the same obstacles still exist; cost, weight, durability, range between fuel stops, ability to mass produce and a lack of fueling stations. The first fueling station in the country was opened on May 10, 2011 by Toyota, in Torrance, Calif.

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