Iron as a catalyst is making news, especially in Europe where the element is suspected to have a role in the catalyst for the Rossi E-Cat.  That might be the case as scientists at the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique Varennes, Québec, Canada (INRS) have published a paper in Nature Communications showing an iron alloy matches well to platinum as a fuel cell catalyst.

A cathode made with the best electrocatalyst from the team’s work, tested in H2O2, has a power density of 0.75 W cm−2 at 0.6 V, a meaningful voltage for polymer-electrolyte-membrane fuel cells operation, comparable with that of a commercial Pt-based cathode tested under identical conditions.

The alloy is iron-acetate/phenanthroline/zeolitic-imidazolate framework built into an electrocatalyst.  The zeolitic-imidazolate-framework serves as a microporous host for phenanthroline and ferrous acetate to form a precursor that is subsequently heat-treated. The new catalyst shows increased volumetric activity and enhanced mass-transport properties.

Iron Based Catalyst SEM Images. Image Credit: INRS. Click image for the larget view.

INRS has been at this a while having pioneered the development of the first high-performance iron-based catalyst for fuel cells.  The scientist’s second advance of a new and improved iron-based catalyst is capable of generating even more electric power.  The goal is to match or better platinum in fuel cells for transportation applications. So far only platinum-based catalysts have been able to produce adequate performance.

The new research findings are from the team of Professor Jean-Pol Dodelet.  Whose press release narrative runs, “With these new and promising results, we bolster the prospect of iron-based catalysts replacing platinum ones in the electrochemical reduction of oxygen, one of two reactions needed to activate the electric power generator we call a fuel cell. Platinum is rare and very costly, whereas iron is the second most abundant metal on earth and is inexpensive.”

The good professors optimism shows with, “Thanks to this breakthrough we are nearing the day when we will be able to drive electric-electric hybrid vehicles — i.e. battery and fuel cell powered — , which can potentially free us from our current dependence on oil to power our cars.”

Keep in mind, as French speaking folks, these Canadians are an interesting mix of North American car culture and European social connections.  The motivation – and opportunity – to make a major and adoptable contribution with worldwide implications is possible.

Working at the Énergie Matériaux Télécommunications Research Centre in Varennes, Québec, these INRS scientists are now focusing on the improvement of the long-term stability (at least 5,000 hours) of these promising new catalysts. “The next step is the most important because it will automatically lead to a high value commercial product, not only for car manufacturers but also for all industrial sectors that use electric power generators or manufacture their components,” explained Mr. Dodelet.

It’s still a long way to go.  The press release, while in French and translates easily and clearly, no offering of the fuel used is made. One assumes that hydrogen gas would be the first candidate, but real sales volume is going to need methane, methanol, plus ethanol fuel use capability. Relying on hydrogen gas for fuel in the face of the economic scale for natural gas and the alcohols isn’t thinking through to the market economics.

But using iron to cover half the reaction in a fuel cell at essentially the same performance of platinum is a breakthrough. The explanation of the construction of the catalyst isn’t noting just how it’s formed until the end, which offers quite a bit of speculation.  Lab work is just like that – but commercialization has to have much more solid answers.

The INRS is a young university.  A major research hit that goes commercial and really makes a difference including big investments, lots of jobs and sales in the millions is just what the school needs.

Almost there – we hope.


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