The black powder in the three vials proudly displayed by Matija Gatalo, a young researcher at Slovenia’s National Institute of Chemistry, resembles coal dust – one of the dirtiest energy sources known to man. Even though coal is one of the main culprits behind global warming and responsible for at least 800,000 deaths per year in Europe due to air pollution, countries (many of them signatories of the Paris Agreement) still seem unwilling to renounce it. Yet in marked contrast to its coal-based counterpart, the black powder invented by the Slovenian scientist offers a solution for the hydrogen revolution and a potential transition to a carbon-neutral society.
Hydrogen technology, or producing electricity from hydrogen, could play an important role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, since hydrogen is the most abundant chemical element in the universe, and water is the system’s only by-product.
A hydrogen fuel cell transforms hydrogen and oxygen into electric energy, with the help of a catalyst. However, the catalyst, a key component, requires large quantities of platinum. This metal is rare, and its steep price is a major barrier to the widespread application of hydrogen technology. Moreover, the planet might not contain enough platinum to power the mass commercialization of hydrogen technology, even if some platinum is now being recycled.
Gatalo is convinced that if we can reduce the quantity of platinum in hydrogen fuel cells, the mass commercialization of this technology will no longer be in doubt. He has come up with two innovations that could provide the solution. The first, a "rather unattractive looking black powder," as he puts it, is a catalyst two times cheaper and three to four times more efficient as those currently on the market. About half of the platinum is replaced with copper, which is significantly cheaper. (Platinum cannot be completely replaced, as it is one of the few metals able to withstand the pressures put on it by vehicles over the long term.)
His second breakthrough is an ecologically sound method of producing this catalyst based on nanotechnology. He says it offers about a hundredfold increase in production, compared to what other laboratories can do. "With these two innovations, we have created the foundation for a much wider use of this clean energy source," Gatalo explains.
Hydrogen fuel cells and batteries have many applications – including as an alternative to conventional internal-combustion engines. There is little doubt that hydrogen technology could usher in an era of cleaner mobility. Hydrogen-based energy does not pollute the air, and the water produced in the process can be released into nature from the vehicle's tank. The South Korean car manufacturer Hyundai even claims that Nexo, its hydrogen-fuel-cell based model, can clean the atmosphere while driving, as it filters air before it reaches the fuel cell.
Japan is one of the countries most rapidly embracing hydrogen technology, given its decision to back away from nuclear energy in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Two other car models using the technologies are Toyota's Mirai and Honda's Clarity FCV, and Japanese authorities have declared that all vehicles at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic village shall be powered by hydrogen fuel cells.
Currently, the greatest number of hydrogen-powered vehicles are in operation in the United States. More than half of them are registered in California, the state with the most advanced network of hydrogen filling stations.
In Europe, this type of vehicle is still relatively scarce, due largely to its high price tag. But now a number of factors, including Gatalo's twin innovations, could herald a change. (The other major hindrance is the scarcity of filling stations, though this area is experiencing a welcome increase as well. Germany, traditionally the role model for the entire European car manufacturing industry, is planning to install 400 new filling stations by 2023.)
The National Institute of Chemistry has applied for a patent for Gatalo’s two innovations, and the catalyst has attracted the attention of several companies. "We are not allowed to reveal their names, but I can mention that, in the field of catalyst production, two of them are what Nike and Adidas are in the sportswear market," the researcher says.
This article is being published as part of Earth Beats, an international and collaborative initiative gathering 18 news media outlets from around the world to focus on solutions to waste and pollution.