The art of innovation: The R&D side of fuel cell catalysts at Umicore
With over 30 years of experience, our fuel cell catalysts R&D team is reshaping the future of mobility with a clear focus on decarbonization. By transitioning away from conventional combustion engines, we are pioneering alternative eco-friendly mobility solutions. Our tailor-made Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cell catalysts provide superior performance to accelerate the development of fuel cell vehicles, which emit nothing but water vapor and warm air. This is an example of Umicore’s responsible commitment towards innovation and sustainability.
Why fuel cells?
Fuel cells generate electricity through electrochemical redox reactions, instead of combustion. They combine fuels such as hydrogen or methane with oxygen, to convert the chemical energy of these fuels directly into electrical energy. This process makes fuel cells extremely efficient. When the cell is fueled by green hydrogen - using renewable energy sources only - water vapor and warm air are emitted. According to the Hydrogen Council, hydrogen fuel cells are the lowest-cost choice to decarbonize both medium and heavy-duty road transport, with zero harmful emissions.
Over three decades of know-how
Umicore’s R&D activities on fuel cell catalysts started over 30 years ago. In the mid-2000s there was a general market downturn in the development of fuel cells for mobility applications, but this did not stop Umicore from investing in its R&D capabilities for fuel cells.
“Even during the period when fuel cells lost popularity, we never stopped investing in R&D. The complex chemistry of fuel cells requires fundamental knowledge and long-term experience which can only be obtained over decades rather than years. This is why we continued to develop our knowledge, so that Umicore would be ready for a strong start when the fuel cell market picked up again.”
Christin Hamm, Project Manager, Fuel Cell Catalysts
Since the market recovery in 2012, Umicore has demonstrated its know-how in fuel cell catalyst development and industrial scale production. When it comes to recycling, we are currently processing end-of-life fuel cell catalysts and production scrap to recover the valuable metals such as platinum. As the fuel cell and electrolyzer industry is still in its early stages, the stream of end-of-life materials is limited, so the recycling process can and should be optimized once the market takes a clear direction.
Repainting the borders of chemistry
Umicore strongly believes in its capabilities to overcome challenges and continuously innovate to find better solutions and products. In 2014 we started the development of high-performing platinum-only catalysts, laying the foundations for improved energy conversion. Subsequently, we progressed towards the creation of platinum-alloy catalysts for improved catalytic activity, which led to a significant boost in the efficiency and performance of our fuel cells, generating more energy for the same amount of fuel. A few years later, we developed our Oxygen Evolution Reactor (OER) catalyst which extends the lifetime of a fuel cell - a major advance in sustainability and cost-effectiveness. In 2018, we installed a unique reactor in our laboratory which enables us to control particle size and deposition, so that we can now observe, at atomic level, the first interactions between the particles that form new materials. This deeper understanding enables us to design and create even more efficient catalysts, pushing the boundaries of fuel cell technology.
Our road to progress does not depend only on our in-house knowledge. We collaborate with various universities, institutions and OEMs to build fundamental knowledge which we translate into market applications.
“To create the ideal product, you need to innovate by combining various kinds of chemistry. You cannot plan it, you need to be creative, just as you would with a painting. You apply a completely new technique [chemistry], get inspired by other artists [external collaborations], and apply the input of the buyer [market needs] to create the perfect painting.”
Daniel Herein, Senior Manager Global Research & Technology
Next steps to maintain our market leadership
Our expertise, product quality, and market share make us a global market leader in fuel cell catalysts. To maintain this position, we work on continuous innovation, improving the efficiency of tomorrow’s fuel cells. We focus on developing highly efficient, reliable, and mature fuel cell technology to bring new innovations in the field.
“Together with our research and industry partners, we look at new ways of improving our fuel cell catalysts to meet specific requirements. This includes challenges such as optimizing their capacity to endure severe conditions with optimal energy input or reducing costs by minimizing the reliance on precious materials.”
Gerald Jeske, Senior Advisor