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Platinum Metals Rev., 1989, 33, (2), 63

Fuel Cell Developments and Future Potential


The nineteenth century invention and twentieth century development of fuel cell technology are admirably covered in a recent review (S. Srinivasan, J. Electrochem. Soc., 1989, 136, (2), 41C–48C). The key feature of a fuel cell system is the electrochemical cell stack, and its components include the porous gas diffusion electrodes, the electrolyte and the bipolar plate, and these are determined largely by the primary fuel and by the temperature and pressure of the system. Unless very high operating temperatures are used the performance of the electrodes depends upon the characteristics of the electrocatalyst, and platinum or a platinum alloy is generally used.

The pioneering work of F. T. Bacon in the early 1930s served as the foundation for the fuel cells that successfully provided auxiliary power on the Apollo space vehicles. Fuel cells developed from these earlier models provide the main electrical power supplies for the Orbitor space shuttles, and their success has led to a European programme to consider fuel cell generators for the Hermes reusable space craft.

The energy crisis of 1973 gave a significant boost to the development of fuel cells for terrestrial applications, and the continuing need to conserve petroleum fuels reinforced by the current interest in low pollution energy generation has helped to sustain major development programmes in America, Japan and Europe.

This useful review concludes by giving a most interesting prognosis of the economics and applications of fuel cell systems, and therefore at least in the short to medium term for platinum-containing electrocatalysts. It is suggested that lower manufacturing costs and higher fossil fuel prices make fuel cell systems most attractive for terrestrial use in the developing countries.