A Replacement for Platinum in Fuel Cells

Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel Cells (PEMFC) are the energy source of the future. More commonly known as hydrogen fuel cells, PEMFCs convert hydrogen and oxygen into electrical output. Since the only byproducts are heat and water, PEMFCs would be much more environmentally-friendly than combustion engines. But, PEMFCs have been held back from the mainstream market because they require a very rare material – platinum.

Platinum electrodes are required to catalyze the reaction between hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity. There are other metals that can catalyze such a reaction, but they cannot withstand the acidic environment of the PEMFC. Platinum, on the other hand, has stable electrical conductivity and is extremely resistant to oxidation and corrosion – even in high temperatures.

During the ongoing research for PEMFCs, one of the major goals has been to find another suitable catalyst instead of relying on platinum. Recently, researchers from the Technical University of Denmark have made some headway using a new type iron carbide and carbon-based catalyst.

Ordinarily, iron carbide would dissolve in the acidic environment of the PEMFC. But it’s protected by a layer of graphene – a highly resilient form of carbon. The Danish team discovered that the iron carbide could be protected from the acidic environment of the PEMFC by covering it in a very thin layer of rolled up graphene. Even though the graphene protects the iron carbide from the acid, it does not inhibit the catalytic activity.

There is still a lot of testing and research to be done, but if platinum can be replaced as a catalyst in fuel cells, there will be more available for other applications, such as anticancer drugs, spark plugs, and more.

Gold Fraud Explained

With anything valuable, there will be some fraud or black market surrounding it, and gold is no exception. Of course, there are the usual cases of counterfeits, which we have covered in the past. In this post, we’ll go over some other types of fraud that gold dealers, and even miners, should be aware of.

For example, gold laundering is used to conceal the source that provided the gold. It may be used by small-scale unlicensed gold mines or by larger operations who want to look like they are complying with regulations. For example, MGS does not accept mined materials from Africa – so an unscrupulous seller might try to launder their gold to make it look like it came from somewhere else. Basically, the process works by taking the illegally obtained gold and treating it like scrap – melting it down and recasting it to make it look bullion from a legitimate source. Unlike counterfeit bullion, the gold is 100% real, but carries the risk of legal fallout if its true source is discovered.

Luckily, there are detection methods. Gold fingerprinting uses laser ablation inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS) to give a gold sample a unique identity based on its trace impurities. Unless these miniscule impurities are painstakingly refined out of the laundered gold (gold launderers are unlikely to have the time, resources, and skills to accomplish this), the gold can be traced back to its true origin.

Another type of fraud is mostly exclusive to the mining industry: gold salting. This involves adding gold to an ore sample to make it look like its area of origin has richer deposits than it actually does – which deceives and defrauds the mining company’s investors. Luckily, this is also easy to detect. Gold ore usually has very little gold in it, so if it’s salted, it’ll produce suspiciously erratic assay results. It also runs into reproducibility problems when additional samples from the same site are tested.

The SS Central America Revisited

The SS Central America was a steamer ship that sank off the coast of South Carolina carrying more than 13 tons of California gold while en-route to New York in 1857. Valued at more than $2 million at the time, the loss of the cargo contributed to the Panic of 1857 – the very first world-wide economic crisis.

The shipwreck was discovered by Thomas G. Thompson in 1988, causing a major legal brouhaha. Thirty-nine insurance companies filed suit, claiming that because they paid damages in the 19th century for the lost gold, they had the right to it. This tied up the gold that Thompson recovered until 2000 when insurers were awarded $5 million in gold. Thompson was able to sell the rest of the treasure for a reported $52 million.

However, none of Thompson’s investors, who financed his expedition, saw a cent. In 2005, some of them sued Thompson for their share. In 2012, Thompson failed to show up for a court hearing in Ohio and has been on the run ever since.

Ira O. Kane, a Columbus lawyer and businessman, was appointed by the court to recover as much gold as possible for the benefit of Thompson’s creditors and investors. Kane’s solution to the problem was to go back to the source. Thompson only recovered 532 gold bars and about 7,500 gold coins. Experts estimate than more than half of the SS Central America’s precious cargo is still at the shipwreck site, valued at about $85 million.

Kane selected the company Odyssey – who has recovered shipwrecked treasure from the SS Mantola and SS Gairsoppa (just to name a few). During a reconnaissance dive, Odyssey recovered five gold bars and two gold coins from the shipwreck site. The company plans to move forward with a full archaeological excavation.