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A Nickel Catalyst for Fuel Cells
Nickel-cobalt is seen as a low-cost substitute for platinum catalysts
By Virginia Heffernan, Nickel Magazine, November 2005
The price of the catalyst is one of the main barriers to the development of affordable fuel cells. So anyone who can design a cheaper catalyst stands to make a significant contribution to the commercialization of the alternative energy technology.

California-based QuantumSphere Inc., a leading manufacturer of metallic nanopowders, claims to have done just that by developing a nickel-cobalt nanomaterial that could partially or fully replace platinum catalysts in a variety of battery and fuel cell applications.

Platinum, currently priced at about US$75 per gram in bulk, is about five times more expensive than QuantumSphere’s nickel-cobalt alloy, which sells for roughly US$15 per gram. As a result, QuantumSphere says, battery and fuel cell manufacturers would cut their costs by about 50% if they replaced platinum in catalysts with the new nanomaterial.

QuantumSphere recently had its results independently validated by DoppStein Enterprises Inc., a U.S.-based battery and fuel cell consulting firm.

Using the nickel-cobalt nanomaterial does require some sacrifice in performance. For instance, DoppStein found that if all the platinum on the cathode (7.7 micrograms per square centimetre) is replaced by nickel-cobalt, costs would drop by 90% and performance, compared with pure platinum, would decline 27%. Replace half the platinum, though, and costs drop by 43% with only a 10% reduction in performance.

“Nearly 40% of the total device cost can be attributed to catalysts in these systems, which tend to be prohibitively expensive for getting the device to commercialization,” says Dr. Kimberly McGrath, the company’s director of fuel cell research. “If you couple the savings in cost [using the proprietary alloy] with the small sacrifice in performance, you have a huge benefit.”

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