Platinum-copper alloy could herald cheaper fuel cells

Platinum has been long cherished for its gleam and stability, and despite its rarity it has found increasing use in our industrial processes. Most notably, platinum is used in catalytic converters for vehicles. The metal is also reactive with hydrogen, making it an excellent catalyst for fuel cells and of interest to researchers in the energy storage field.

As one of the rarest metals on Earth, platinum is too scarce to provide the raw material for a mass adoption of fuel cells. However, scientists at Tufts University have found a way to tap platinum’s fuel-cell potential at very low concentrations by combining it with copper. On its own, copper is a cheap but not very effective catalyst. With a dusting of platinum atoms, however, it becomes a highly effective catalyst for the hydrogenation of butadiene. Using tiny amounts of platinum, sometimes single atoms, within much larger quantities of copper, the researchers were able to create alloys capable of steadily splitting hydrogen over a period of days under industrial conditions.

This diluted platinum catalyst could not only be a cost saving, but make for safer and more effective fuel cells, as lowering the Pt concentration reduces the problem of the metal binding with carbon monoxide over time. Interest will be high, as a relatively cheap new alloy could drive fuel cell costs into a more competitive zone.

Source: Felicia R. Lucci et al., ‘Selective hydrogenation of 1,3-butadiene on platinum–copper alloys at the single-atom limit’, Nature Communications (2015). DOI: 10.1038/NCOMMS9550 (freely available).