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Shedding Light on Fuel Cell Catalysts
Shedding Light on Fuel Cell Catalysts - Columbian College of Arts and Sciences

Oct 09 2009

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Chemistry Professor David Ramaker wants to build a better fuel cell. To do so, he and his graduate students conduct research with one of the biggest toys a scientist can findóthe massive Synchrotron at the Brookhaven National Lab in Long Island, N.Y.

At the 5,200-acre facility, electrons race around a ring, providing the kind of intense light that Ramaker needs to study molecules found on platinum within fuel cell catalysts. Fuel cells convert hydrogen or other material to electrical energy and do not pollute like combustion engines. However, platinum is expensive and becomes “poisoned” by carbon monoxide and other molecules absorbed onto the metal. That reduces the life of the cell and is one of the reasons fuel cells have not been adapted for regular use in automobiles.

Over the past 10 years, Ramaker and his group have worked on an X-ray spectroscopy technique that allows them to observe the molecules on the platinum catalysts. They need the Synchrotron because it generates enough light to go right through a fuel cell. “I can literally see the carbon monoxide on the molecules,” Ramaker said. “Not only can I see it, I can tell how it’s bonded on the surface.” That information can help him find how molecules react with platinum and how the platinum degrades.

In order to use the Synchrotron, Ramaker applies to the government for free hours of “beam time” available only a few days a year. “We drive up to New York and work 24 hours a day, getting as much data as we can. We spend maybe three months analyzing those data, and then we go up to New York again for another three or four days.”

Ramaker’s technique, called Delta X-ray Absorption Near Edge Structure, is becoming accepted among researchers. He’s been invited to give tutorials and write papers. “Finally, other people are saying ‘Wow!’ I told my wife …. people are really interested in this stuff.”

Ramaker spends one day a week at the Naval Research Lab working on fuel cells for drone planes. He is also looking into the use of fuel cells in laptops, portable phones, heaters, military night goggles, and other applications that need long-lasting power.