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Turning the Tides: New Mexico-born Materials for Japanese Cars

March 7, 2012

UNM’s burst of activity in nano-materials research over the last few years has resulted in a discovery that could transform automobile technology. In just under three years, School of Engineering researchers developed the catalysts needed for the world’s first platinum-free fuel cell for the FC ShoCase, a concept car designed by Daihatsu Motor Corporation. Daihatsu is a member of the "Toyota family" and manufactures small cars almost exclusively for the Japanese domestic market. The car premiered at the 42nd Tokyo Motor Show in December, 2011.

Plamen Atanassov, Professor of Chemical & Nuclear Engineering and Associate Dean for Research of the UNM School of Engineering, heads the research team and says the tides are changing for Japanese automobile technology. “Fuel cell technology provides clean power for electric cars, efficient combined heat-and-power generation for domestic use, and other benefits,” says Atanassov. “Now with non-platinum fuel cells, car manufacturers aren’t constrained by the extreme expense and scarcity of this precious metal.”

The technology is also changing another landscape. “The critical catalyst materials for this unusual fuel cell for that cute toaster-looking van was made here, in Albuquerque, and shipped to Daihatsu,” says Atanassov. “If all goes well, New Mexico technology would power cars in the Land of the Raising Sun.”

Behind the Scenes

The technology development for fuel cell catalysts was supported through a succession of Department of Defense and Department of Energy grants, cultivated by industrially-funded memberships under the umbrella of NSF and forged in collaborations with Los Alamos National Labs and other Department of Energy national labs. Daihatsu Motor Company approached the UNM team at the right time, when the catalyst technology was ready for market introduction.

Daihatsu lead scientist Hirohisa Tanaka had a great vision for the new generation Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEV).The fuel for this unusual ZEV is hydrazine hydrate – a water solution of hydrazine that can be safely stored and used as a liquid fuel. As the fuel is oxidized on the anode of the fuel cell, only nitrogen and water is produced, making it a true ZEV.

Atanassov’s team developed the anode catalysts for fuel oxidation and worked with GTI, the leading research, development and training organization serving energy and environmental markets, on the cathode catalysts for oxygen reduction.

The breakthrough fuel cell uses a new type of polymer electrolyte membrane that conducts electricity by exchanging anions (hydroxyls), as opposed to the proton-exchange membranes that are popular today. The membrane allows the use of non-platinum catalysts for both oxidation of fuel on the anode and oxygen reduction on the cathode. The catalyst is stable in an alkaline media and thus can replace platinum catalyst, which dominates in an acidic media. The platinum metal-free fuel cells would be much cheaper to produce than traditional fuel cells that rely on platinum and other expensive materials.

Tanaka's vision crystallized in an unusual industry/university partnership called CAFÉ – Creating Anion-exchange Fuel-cells for Earth. CAFÉ brings together researchers across Japan from academia and government, from private industry and non-profits and it has the participation of Gas Technology Institute (GTI) in Chicago and UNM.

Photos courtesy of Hirohisa Tanaka of Daihatsu.