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Discovery Could Make Fuel Cells Much Cheaper

• Chuck Squatriglia via

One of the biggest issues with hydrogen fuel cells, aside from the lack of fueling infrastructure, is the high cost of the technology. Fuel cells use a lot of platinum, which is frightfully expensive and one reason we’ll pay $50,000 or so for the hydrogen cars automakers say we’ll see in 2015.

That might soon change. Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory have developed a platinum-free catalyst in the cathode of a hydrogen fuel cell that uses carbon, iron and cobalt. That could make the catalysts “two to three orders of magnitude cheaper,” the lab says, thereby significantly reducing the cost of fuel cells.

Although the discovery means we could see hydrogen fuel cells in a wide variety of applications, it could have the biggest implications for automobiles.

Despite the auto industry’s focus on hybrids, plug-in hybrids and battery-electric vehicles — driven in part by the Obama administration’s love of cars with cords — several automakers remain convinced hydrogen fuel cells are the best alternative to internal combustion.

Hydrogen offers the benefits of battery-electric vehicles — namely zero tailpipe emissions — without the drawbacks of short range and long recharge times. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are electric vehicles; they use a fuel cell instead of a battery to provide juice. You can fill a car with hydrogen in minutes, it’ll go about 250 miles or so and the technology is easily adapted to everything from forklifts to automobiles to buses.

Toyota, Mercedes-Benz and Honda are among the automakers promising to deliver hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in 2015. Toyota has said it has cut the cost of fuel cell vehicles more than 90 percent by using less platinum — which currently goes for around $1,800 an ounce — and other expensive materials. It plans to sell its first hydrogen vehicle for around $50,000, a figure Daimler has cited as a viable price for the Mercedes-Benz F-Cell (pictured above in Australia).

Fifty grand is a lot of money, especially something like the F-Cell — which is based on the B-Class compact — or the Honda FCX Clarity.


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