Chemistry research could improve the vehicles of the future

By Ivan Muzychka

Few people doubt that automobiles and buses will be powered by electricity some day. However, don't start dreaming of a time when you'll have to pull over to recharge your car's batteries. It's more likely that your electric vehicle will still be in need of a fill-up -- but it will take methanol or hydrogen instead of gasoline.

Electric cars may come a lot sooner thanks to the research of Dr. Peter Pickup of Memorial's Department of Chemistry. Dr. Pickup has been researching ways to improve fuel cells, which will make up the "heart" of electric buses and cars of the future. Fuel cell technology is currently one of the most promising alternatives to gasoline powered vehicles. Dr. Pickup was recently awarded a three-year grant worth $144,950 by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council to research ways to make fuel cells more efficient, less expensive, and ultimately commercially viable.

An important part of the electric vehicles of the future is something called a proton exchange membrane fuel cell. The basic unit of the cell is a polymer membrane sandwiched between two sheets of carbon fibre paper. "The fuel cell consists of two electrodes separated by a polymer which conducts hydrogen ions," Dr. Pickup explained. "When the fuel reacts [on the surface of the paper] it produces hydrogen ions which move across the membrane and combine with oxygen on the other electrode, which produces an electrical current."

As long as there is a steady supply of fuel, the cell delivers a steady current. "The fuel cell is very similar to a battery except that it uses a fuel which can be continuously supplied -- a battery discharges and then has to be recharged," Dr. Pickup said. "A fuel cell converts the fuel, which would be hydrogen or methanol, and an oxidant (air) into electrical energy." One of the benefits of this type of energy source is that it's not harmful to the environment. "The main advantage is that it is very efficient," Dr. Pickup said. "You get more electrical energy for a specific amount of fuel, and it produces no pollution. Hydrogen can be used as a fuel and the only byproduct created is water."

However despite the advantages, the cells are, for the moment anyway, costly to produce. "One of the problems with the catalyst is that it is made with platinum which is very expensive,"Dr. Pickup said. "We are looking for ways to develop catalysts which either have less platinum or none at all...We are looking for polymeric materials which can dilute the platinum."

The aim of Dr. Pickup's research is to develop better catalyst materials for the fuel cell. The idea is to make the cell more efficient by delivering more voltage. "The carbon fibre electrodes are covered with platinum black -- a catalyst material which speeds up the process. This part of the cell is very crucial because this is where a lot of power is lost. If you can improve this catalyst layer then it will improve the power the fuel cell can generate," he said.

Dr. Pickup will be working with a Canadian company, Ballard Power Systems Inc. of North Vancouver, which is a recognized leader in the area of designing vehicles with fuel cell technology. A previous sabbatical leave spent at Ballard led Dr. Pickup to this area of research. He and his team will work closely with the Ballard scientists.

"They have taken [this technology] to the point where they have produced a small transit bus," Dr. Pickup said of the company. "Their goal is to produce commercial automobiles powered on fuel cells. To do this they need to improve the performance of the cells and bring down the cost."

Dr. Pickup is optimistic about the future of fuel cells. "I don't think there is any question in my mind that this technology will be adopted eventually. Because it has the efficiency advantage," he said. "But it is very hard to predict how soon it will be commercialized. The first commercial application is likely to be buses...In the United States two transit authorities -- Los Angeles and Chicago -- have invested a lot of money in this research, and will have prototype buses soon. The key to the research is to have people making and testing materials, demonstrating that our ideas will work."