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HKUST Develops World’s Most Durable Hydrogen Fuel Cell

Researchers at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) have developed a new hydrogen fuel cell that is the world’s most durable to date. Moreover, it is also more cost-effective and is expected to pave the way for a wider application of green energy in the pursuit of a carbon-neutral world.

Hydrogen fuel cell technology holds incredible promise as a clean energy option, generating power by converting hydrogen and oxygen into electricity, with zero emission of carbon dioxide, particulate matter and other air pollutants that may cause smog and other health problems.

Despite its environmental benefits and years of development, the hydrogen fuel cell was still not widely commercialised as a result of its power generation being dependent on heavily on an electrocatalyst – which is largely made up of the expensive and rare metal platinum.

Scientists have strived to develop alternatives by replacing platinum with more common and inexpensive materials like iron-nitrogen-carbon, but those materials are either proven inefficient in power generation or have poor durability.

However, things have changed now that a research team led by Prof. SHAO Minhua from the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at HKUST, found a new formula which not only could cut down the proportion of platinum used by 80%, but also set a record in terms of the cell’s durability level.

Despite a low portion of platinum, the new hybrid catalyst developed by the team managed to maintain the platinum catalytic activity at 97% after 100,000 cycles of accelerated stress test, compared to the current catalyst which normally sees a drop of over 50% in performance after 30,000 cycles.  In another test, the new fuel cell did not show any performance decay after operating for 200 hours.

The outstanding performance can be partly attributed to the fact that the new catalyst has three different active sites for the reaction, instead of just one in current catalysts. Using a formula containing atomically dispersed platinum, iron single atoms and platinum-iron nanoparticles, the new mix accelerates the reaction rate and achieves a catalytic activity 3.7 times higher than the platinum itself.  Theoretically, the higher the catalytic activity, the greater the power it delivers.

Prof. Shao, who is also the Director of HKUST Energy Institute, stated that the hydrogen fuel cell is an energy conversion device essential for achieving a carbon-neutral world and there is a need to expand its use amidst the fight against climate change.

“We are delighted to see our research findings bringing this goal a step closer.  Thanks to the Government’s Green Tech Fund, we will seek to further refine the catalyst and make it compatible with fuel cell vehicles and other electrochemical devices,” Prof. Shao said.

The study was financially supported by the National Key R&D Program of China, Shenzhen Science and Technology Innovation Committee, and the Research Grant Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.  The research findings were recently published in the journal Nature Catalysis.

About the Green Tech Fund

The Government has set up a HK$ 200 million Green Tech Fund (GTF) to fund research and development (R&D) projects which help Hong Kong decarbonise and enhance environmental protection. Local public research institutions, R&D centres and private companies undertaking these projects can now get better and more focused funding support. GTF funding support ranges from HK$ 2.5 million up to HK$ 30 million per project.

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