Scientists have been inspired by biology to design a fuel cell with cheaper materials (cobalt) and an organic compound (quinone) that carries electrons and protons. In a traditional fuel cell, the electrons and protons of hydrogen are transported from one electrode to another, where they combine with oxygen to produce water. This process converts chemical energy into electricity. To generate a significant amount of charge in a sufficiently short period of time, a catalyst is needed to accelerate the reactions.
At this time, the best catalyst in the market is platinum, but it has a high price. This makes fuel cells expensive and is one of the reasons why there are only a few thousand vehicles with hydrogen fuel currently on the roads of the United States.
UW-Madison Professor of Chemistry Shannon Stahl, who led the new study in collaboration with Thatcher Root, professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, says in a statement that less expensive metals can be used as catalysts in current fuel cells, but only if they are used in large quantities. «The problem is that when too much catalyst is connected to an electrode, the material becomes less effective, which leads to a loss of energy efficiency»