Drive Train – (Material) Efficiency


When talking about efficiency for (hybrid) electric vehicles, one often refers to the mileage of the car or the conversion of electric power to mechanical power. The efficiency I’d like to discuss here is material efficiency, as two nice (potential) breakthroughs popped into my reader this week.


The first is regarding the platinum use in fuel cells, where with a special mechanism it is possible to use less of this precious material to construct fuel cells. With the current share of car manufacturers promising us to deliver fuel cell powered vehicles in the near future, that will sure have an impact on those plans (and the price of such vehicles ofcourse!). The second is regarding a material called grapheme, a material of one atom-thick which can come in sheets and is expected to have a huge impact in the electronics industry. The problem with this material is that the discovery of it is quite recent (Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded this year to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov for their groundbreaking experiments with this material. At the moment everybody is trying to find a commercially viable method to produce it and it seems good old sugar might do the trick.

The core of this technology, palladium with a platinum coating

For the construction of a fuel cell platinum is required to play the role of the catalyst in the reaction. The early models used quite a substantial amount of this precious material, making them hideously expensive. With the current breakthrough of the US Department of Energy (DoE) Brookhaven National Laboratory it is expected that ony about 10 grams will be needed for a fuel cell in a vehicle. Conveniently that is the same amount that is currently used in the catalytic convertor that is on ICE cars now, to treat the exhaust fumes. Effectively this means that a fuel cell vehicle and a conventional ICE vehicle requite the same amount of platinum to manufacture.


The key in this breakthrough is the use of palladium-gold cores which are then coated with the platinum. In a normal fuel cell over time the platinum dissolves, taking out the catalyst of the fuel cell which needs to be replaced. With the palladium-gold cores, the palladium gets dissolved first, while maintaining the catalytic ability of the platinum and ensuring a longer lifespan for the fuel cell.

Common sugar, the key to advanced electronics?

Graphene hit the news earlier this year when Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov were awarded the Nobel Price for Physics for their experiments on the material. Their famous method to construct the material by using scotch tape and applying it to graphite to scrape of small layers has popped up in many news articles. This method is not something that can be implemented on a commercial scale though, for that the researchers of Rice Research have found a way to produce graphene using common sugar. This is a super cheap material to produce such potentially high tech products with. It is expected that this discovery of graphene will lead to lighter electronics altogether and since modern vehicles tend to contain more electronics with every new model, this will surely help losing weight (and gain some miles in range).

Additional info:

Fuel Cell Breakthrough article

Graphene on article Cleantech

Graphene on Wikipedia

Nobel Price for Physics 2010