While the world is constantly on the hunt for clean and emission-free energy, hydrogen seems to be the perfect fuel. However, even after being the most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen doesn’t exist in its pure form on our planet. Most of it is found either in water or other chemicals, requiring a kind of extractor before we can use it to generate power. Conventionally extraction procedures highly depend on fossil fuels, which reduce the eco friendly credentials of hydrogen.
Microbial fuel cells do provide a way to produce clean hydrogen from waste water, but like most good things, this too has a downside – the process is based on the use of platinum as a catalyst, which we all know is one of the most expensive elements. Moreover, platinum like other catalysts degrades after continuous use, adding to the maintenance cost of MFCs. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin know the important of microbial fuel cells for a clean future and also know that we won’t be able to add a catalyst that cost $1200 an ounce to it.
The team at UWM has come up with a solution in the form of a platinum replacement, which is based on the use of cheap, common elements. The new catalyst features nitrogen bonded to the surface of a carbon rod with a core of iron carbide. Other than offering an optimal structure for electron transport, the new catalyst costs just five percent the cost of a platinum catalyst and has also demonstrated consistent performance, far superior to platinum.
The research promises a bright future for microbial fuel cells by eliminating the major drawback of the use of expensive catalysts. The team is now concentrating on studying the exact chemistry of the catalyst so as to make it suitable for mass production.