This Technology Could Finally Make Hydrogen Cars Affordable

Scientists are developing a cheaper fuel cell so the low-carbon vehicles can compete with gasoline-powered cars.

Toyota’s new Mirai is hydrogen powered. (Photo: David Becker/Getty Images)

 

Jan 23, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Padma Nagappan is a multimedia journalist who writes about the environment, renewable energy, sustainability, agriculture, and biotechnology.

You’ll get a chance to buy a low-carbon fuel cell car this summer when Toyota starts selling the Mirai, its first hddrogen-powered vehicle, in the U.S.

There’s just one catch: It costs $57,500 before rebates and tax incentives. Not as pricey as a Tesla Motors’ Model S luxury sports sedan, but not exactly mass-market either—though the car can travel 300 miles on a tank of hydrogen.

That high price point could change if scientists succeed in developing a new type of fuel cell that does not require the use of platinum, a precious metal that is the most expensive part of the device and one of the main reasons Toyota will lose an estimated $100,000 for every Mirai it sells.

A study published in the journal Nature Communications shows that fuel cells could become cost competitive by replacing platinum with nickel, which is a thousand times cheaper.

“We need to make fuel cells more affordable,” said Yushan Yan, an engineering professor at the University of Delaware and coauthor of the study. “So we looked at switching from an acid membrane to an alkaline base. Once you make the switch, you no longer need platinum to be a catalyst. You can use nickel.”

Exactly how much platinum goes into making today’s fuel cells is a closely guarded secret.

“It’s almost impossible to get it down to the level where it could be competitive,” Yan said. “So I thought of removing platinum completely, because the whole focus has been on reduce, reduce, reduce, so it’s very difficult to do any further reduction.”

Fuel cells create an electrochemical reaction to generate electricity that powers a car’s motor. Key to the process is an acid membrane that can only be used with precious metals such as platinum. Yan and his colleagues have won federal funding to develop an alkaline membrane that would allow the use of cheaper metals such as nickel.

The work is still in the laboratory stage, but Yan estimates that within five years, alkaline fuel cells will be ready to hit the road.

“That’s our hope, that alkaline fuel cells will be the next generation of fuel cells,” he said. “Once you do this, you’ll be able to make fuel cells really competitive, without subsidies or taking a loss on every vehicle.”