To help create a greener and cleaner world, Queen’s chemistry professor Gregory Jerkiewicz is reaching out globally.
If we could wean our cars, buses, and trucks off of fossil fuels, it would go a long way in making our cities cleaner and healthier, and in reducing the greenhouse gases pumped into the atmosphere (road transportation accounts for close to 20% of all CO2 emissions worldwide).
Electric vehicles could help solve this problem, but as Jerkiewicz explains, they face a major stumbling block. Currently, car fuel cell technology relies on platinum-containing plates in an acidic environment to generate electricity. “If we were to get into large-scale production, the cost of platinum would jump three, four, or five times – who knows how much.” Worse, he says, “there is not enough platinum on the planet” to make such a large-scale switch a reality.
Nickel is a possible alternative. In fact, back in the early part of the 21st century, what was then Inco Limited (now Vale Canada Limited) developed a macroscopic nickel foam-resembling sponge that Panasonic used in metal-hydride batteries, and which Toyota employed in their Prius automobile. One drawback with nickel, however, is that it isn’t as good of a catalyst as platinum – if you replace the platinum in a fuel cell with a similar amount of nickel, it won’t produce the same amount of electricity. Space is at a premium in cars and trucks, so making the batteries bigger (and heavier) is not a solution.
Jerkiewicz thought there might be a solution on a different level – the nano level. Carrying out research on these macroscopic foams, he discovered that the fibres were hollow – and within them were nanoscopic fibres. (Nanoscopic here refers to anything under 100 nanometres in size. By contrast, a human hair is 86,000 nanometres in diameter.)
A key to the working of any battery (fuel cells being a type of battery) is the total area of the catalyst available for electrochemical reactions. A cube of nickel or platinum will have conversion occurring on its six surfaces. Open this up, coat substrates with it, do anything that increases the surface area, and you’ll boost the conversion and, hence, the power it produces. If you could open it up at the nano level, you could increase the surface area incredibly. “For instance,” says Jerkiewicz, “in PEM [polymer electrolyte membrane] fuel cells, the surface area is in the order of 30-50 square metres per gram of platinum.”
What Jerkiewicz wants to do is to create nickel-based nanoscopic forms that will maximize the surface area, but also have a connected structure that will allow a current to pass through them. He describes these as resembling “scaffolding or a nanoscopic cube with edges but everything else is empty, a nickel nanoframe.”
Jerkiewicz knew that creating these was beyond what one professor, one department, or even one university could do.
My vision was to put together a team that could design them, synthesize them on a small scale, test the stability of their electro-catalytic activity, and then transfer it to industrial partners who will scale it up” for commercial production.
He dubbed the project Ni Electro Can (for Engineered Nickel Catalysts for Electrochemical Clean Energy).
The team he put together draws in seven Canadian universities as well as partners on three continents. His experts on nano materials for use in electrical applications are at the University of Poitiers (France).
If he needs to examine materials, he turns to Gianluigi Botton at McMaster’s Canadian Centre for Electron Microscopy – “one of the best facilities in the world.” Byron Gates at Simon Fraser University (SFU) is an expert on designing nano materials, particularly foams. Steven Holdcroft at SFU and Dario Dekel at the Israel Institute of Technology are experts on the membranes used within fuel cells. All in, there are about 30 researchers involved, along with a similar number of graduate students, which is growing as the project is only in the middle of its second year.
“It is difficult to coordinate,” says Jerkiewicz. “If we were in a small European country, we could have a review meeting every month and everyone would be able to get there in a few hours.” Fortunately, email and the Internet help to keep them connected. After an initial meeting in January 2016, they now meet annually for a project review, and hold workshops every few months for the Canadian participants. Ni Electro Can has a full-time project manager to coordinate its far-flung researchers.
In January 2016, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada awarded the group with a $4M Discovery Frontiers Grant to cover its research over the next four years. It is still very early days, but if, says Jerkiewicz, “it can be scaled up, and if it can be created in a way that immunizes against any environmental impacts,” then the world will be one big step closer to leaving the internal combustion engine behind.