Scientists from Samara and Moscow, together with colleagues from China and India, are developing new materials to create cheap hydrogen fuel cells.
Unlike conventional batteries, such power sources are more efficient (depending on the type, their efficiency can reach 70–80 %) and environmentally friendly – when fuel cell generates electricity, only water or water vapor is released into the environment. This technology has been known for a long time and has even found its application, e.g. in space technology and a number of other fields. However, massive expansion of fuel cells is constrained by the expensive platinum used in them.
“Alkaline membrane fuel cells are a very hot topic now. To date, experience has been accumulated in the use of such power sources in airplanes, spacecraft, industrial production and everyday life. They are efficient, environmentally friendly, they span a wide range of operating temperatures, but they are very expensive, because they use platinum – it is the best catalyst to reduce oxygen, and now scientists almost all over the world are looking for cheaper catalyst materials so that they can cut the cost of fuel cells and make their use more widespread,” said Anzhela Bulanova, Professor of the Department of Physical Chemistry and Chromatography, Academician S. P. Korolev Samara National Research University. A Russian research group is working under her leadership as part of an international team of researchers, which also includes scientists from China and India.
Their research program is planned for three years, supported by a grant from the Russian Foundation for Fundamental Research, allocated via BRICS with a funding volume up to 5 million rubles annual*. In this international consortium of researchers China is represented by scientists from the Beijing University of Chemical Technology, India – by specialists from the International Center for Advanced Research in Powder Metallurgy and New Materials. Russia is represented by scientists from the Samara Academician S. P. Korolev National Research University, the Samara State Technical University and the A. N. Frumkin Institute of Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Moscow).
According to the grant materials, Chinese scientists are responsible for theoretical calculations, conducting a series of experiments and creating an alkaline anion-exchange membrane for the fuel cell. The Russian group will focus on developing high-performance non-platinum electrocatalysts and testing their performance. Indian specialists will fabricate a membrane electrode assembly and study its microstructure to optimize the performance of fuel cells.
“There are many ideas around the world to produce non-platinum catalysts,” noted Anzhela Bulanova. “Our idea is that we propose to make a catalyst carrier based on mesoporous compounds – materials with microscopic pores of 2 to 4 nanometers diameter. We will be able to dope these compounds, that is, build some elements, for example, nitrogen into them while synthesizing such compounds to improve their catalytic properties. We will also incorporate rare earth elements into these compounds – dysprosium, lanthanum, terbium, and test the resulting catalysts using special equipment.”
The ideas of these scientists have already found their reflection in a number of scientific works**. Beside conducting multiple experiments and developing a method to produce non-platinum catalysts, Russian scientists will also have to run a large number of theoretical calculations.
“That study will also include a very large, plain huge theoretical part. It will be necessary to calculate how active centers are structured and distributed in the resulting catalysts, those at which the chemical reaction takes place in fact, and how to make the catalyst achieve the highest density of those active centers. It is planned to use the capacities of the Supercomputer Center of our University for these calculations,” said Anzhela Bulanova.
Fuel cells differ from the well-known conventional batteries and accumulators in that the substances necessary for chemical reaction in such cells are fed from the outside, like gasoline from a gas tank, instead of being placed inside the cell case during its manufacture, as is the case with batteries and accumulators. Hence, while the battery, discarded after exhausting its charge has to be thrown away and the discharged accumulator be recharged, the fuel cell can work without interruption as long as reagents, hydrogen and oxygen are fed from the outside.
Since the 1960s, fuel cell power sources have been actively used in space and some other areas. Fuel cells were developed for the Soviet lunar program, and were also used in the space programs Apollo, Space Shuttle, Energia-Buran, to offer a few examples.
In the 1980s, a prototype fuel cell bus was built in the Soviet Union. In the early 2000s, experimental models of ANTEL vehicles (“Fuel Cell Automobiles”) were developed at AvtoVAZ. They performed well in tests, but failed to reach serial production stage, and funding for the project was suspended. Last year, a new prototype of a hydrogen fuel cell car based on the Lada Kalina model, developed by one of the Russian companies was presented in Moscow.
In 2014, production has started of the Japanese Toyota Mirai model, which is considered the world's first mass-produced hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. In 2018–2019, the annual sales of the model did not exceed 2 thousand. Currently, hydrogen cell vehicles are also produced by such manufacturers as Honda, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz and others. In the US, fuel cell car buyers receive government compensation for purchasing an environmentally friendly vehicle.
* RFFR grant to implement the project “Fundamental Research and Development of Key Materials for New High-Performance Alkaline Membrane Fuel Cells” was nominated following a joint competition for the best multilateral research projects in BRICS priority areas, held by organizations participating in the BRICS Framework Program in Science, Technology and Innovation.
** List of related publications:
Shafigulin R.V., Filippova E.O., Shmelev A.A., Bulanova A.V. Mesoporous Silica Doped With Dysprosium and Modified With Nickel: A Highly Efficient And Heterogeneous Catalyst For The Hydrogenation of Benzene, Ethylbenzene and Xylenes. Catalysis Letters. 2019. V. 149. P. 916-928.
Filippova E.O., Tokranov A.A., Shafigulin R.V., Bulanova A.V. Synthesis of mesoporous silica gel doped with dysprosium and modified with nickel, and study of its selectivity in the process of catalytic hydrogenation of a mixture of benzene and its derivatives // Journal of Applied Chemistry. 2020. Vol. 93. Issue 5. P. 735-741.
Filippova E.O., Shafigulin R.V., Tokranov A.A., Shmelev A.A., Bulanova A.V. Study of adsorption properties of synthesized mesoporous silica doped with dysprosium and modified with nickel // J. ChinChem Soc. 2020; V. 67, P. 1167-1173 DOI: 10.1002/jccs.201900440.
Filippova E.O., Shafigulin R.V., Bulanova A.V. Kinetic characteristics of catalysts based on mesoporous silica gel doped with dysprosium and modified with Ni, Cu, Ag in xylene hydrogenation reactions // Journal of Physical Chemistry. 2020 (accepted for publication)
PtCu porous nanowire catalyst synthesized via ultrasound-assisted galvanic replacement for oxygen reduction reaction. Hehuan Cao, Jidong Cao, Fanghui Wang, Shuxian Di, Hong Zhu, Min Pu, Anzhela Bulanova. State Key Laboratory of Chemical Resource Engineering, Institute of Modern Catalysis, Department of Organic Chemistry, College of Chemistry, Beijing University of Chemical Technology, Beijing 100029, P. R. China. (in press)