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Campus researchers find catalyst may aid in fuel cell development

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FEBRUARY 13, 2012

UC Berkeley researchers recently published a report outlining how the use of a catalyst may aid in developing more efficient hydrogen fuel cells.

The report — which was published Feb. 10 in the journal Science — explains how the catalyst “molybdenite” efficiently separates water into hydrogen and oxygen using less electricity. The hydrogen produced can then function as an energy source for fuel cells that power vehicles and facilities without producing carbon emissions.

UC Berkeley chemistry professors Christopher Chang and Jeffrey Long found that the catalyst will use less energy to make “generations of hydrogen more efficient,” according to UC Berkeley chemistry professor and co-author of the report Marcin Majda.

At the moment, fuel cell technology is more expensive than technology that is run on fossil fuels, such as a car run on a gasoline engine. However, the technology that runs on hydrogen is better for the environment, Majda said.

A catalyst is a substance that allows a chemical reaction to happen faster, with lower inputs of energy. This particular catalyst is less expensive than platinum and is gaining interest as an alternate fuel cell catalyst, according to the report.

The catalyst is not used in the actual fuel cells but is used to create hydrogen, which is not found isolated in nature, he said.

“One needs to produce hydrogen — it is not produced naturally,” he said. “You have to electrolyze water, also known as ‘water splitting,’ in order to separate the oxygen and hydrogen molecules for the hydrogen fuel cells.”

Normally, chemical reactions involving catalysts only occur in a few spots, leaving whole sections of the material unaltered, according to the report. In contrast, the catalyst that the researchers worked with facilitates reactions much more effectively.

Majda gave the example of light bulbs to explain how this catalyst will make designing fuel cells more efficient, explaining that a regular light bulb uses 80 percent of its energy to produce heat instead of its intended product — light — making fluorescent light bulbs a better alternative.

Similarly, this catalyst will make hydrogen fuel cells more efficient, he added.

“This is definitely a major step towards making fuel-cell technology economically viable,” said Omar Rehmane, a junior electrical engineering and computer science major researching energy efficiency. “Any new technology, especially new clean tech, has to be commercially viable, or people will simply ignore it.  It won’t get adopted and therefore won’t be of any benefit.”

Contact Aliyah Mohammed at 


FEBRUARY 13, 2012