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Researchers use new X-ray technique to explore affordable alternative fuel cell materials: 'This is critical'

"Experiments like this help bring fuel cell researchers closer to an ideal catalyst."

"Experiments like this help bring fuel cell researchers closer to an ideal catalyst."

Photo Credit: Kevin Coughlin/Brookhaven National Laboratory

A fuel cell is a device that generates electricity through an electrochemical reaction instead of combustion. Clean energy experts are excited about its potential to provide pollution-free heat, electricity, and power, as it works like batteries that do not need to be recharged. 

However, fuel cells still have some limitations — mainly the fact that they currently rely on platinum group metals (PGM) as catalysts. As these metals are difficult and costly to obtain and non-renewable, fuel cells are not yet commercially viable.

A new study from researchers at Purdue University and the Department of Energy may have found a solution to that problem. As reported by Phys.org, the researchers used a new high-energy-resolution X-ray spectroscopy technique to analyze "iron-nitrogen doped carbon (Fe–N–C) catalysts as an effective alternative to PGM-based catalysts." 

The X-ray emission spectroscopy (XES) was able to give the scientists insights into the reactions happening within the catalyst that they had previously not had access to.

"With XES, tiny changes in a material's chemical state associated with catalytic activity can be revealed," said Eli Stavitski, a researcher for the Department of Energy. "We were able to see the oxidation state changes when driving the catalytic reaction and its precise determination. This is critical to understanding reaction mechanisms."

While all that research is extremely technical and complicated, the upshot is that it could bring us closer to a future where homes are completely powered by clean and renewable energy, helping prevent the overheating of our planet and the environmental destruction caused by dirty energy sources like gas and oil. Not only would that help our planet, but it could make energy less expensive as well.

"Experiments like this help bring fuel cell researchers closer to an ideal catalyst with high performance and stability, while improving cost and availability to allow this clean energy alternative to make a significant impact on scaling back carbon emissions," Phsy.org concluded.

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