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Technology

Nisshinbo's platinum-free tech could mean cheaper fuel-cell cars

Use of carbon alloy yields vast cuts in costs, may enable wider adoption

Nisshinbo Holdings has commercialized a catalyst for fuel cells that uses a carbon alloy instead of expensive platinum.

TOKYO -- Fuel-cell cars may get a much needed cost reduction if new technology from Nisshinbo Holdings leads to platinum-free catalysts becoming widely available for the first time.

The Japanese company has commercialized the world's first catalyst for fuel cells that does not use platinum. The technology has the potential to slash the high prices of fuel-cell cars.

Cost is one of the major hurdles for the adoption of fuel-cell vehicles. Toyota's Mirai model, for example, released in 2014, sells for a hefty 7.23 million yen ($65,800). There are other obstacles as well, such as the lack of infrastructure, including hydrogen filling stations.

Fuel cells generate power from a chemical reaction involving hydrogen and oxygen. A catalyst, usually made with platinum, is needed to kick-start the process. Nisshinbo's catalyst uses a carbon alloy that has been heated in a way that creates a structure which achieves the same effect. The material works nearly as well as the conventional kind with platinum, and is thousands of times cheaper.

The company will initially supply the catalyst to Canada's Ballard Power Systems, which will use it in a fuel cell for portable electronic devices, due to be released in December. The cell's 30-watt output is enough to charge six smartphones.

Nisshinbo hopes to use the same technology in automotive fuel cells. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a single fuel-cell vehicle requires $3,650 in catalyst materials, accounting for 40-45% of the cost of the cell's internal components. The main culprit is platinum, which goes for some 4,000 yen ($36.35) per gram.

Replacing it with a catalyst using Nisshinbo's carbon alloy, which costs less than 1 yen per gram, would bring costs down significantly. The material can also be procured more reliably than platinum, which can be sourced from only a few countries, such as South Africa.

(Nikkei)

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