Cheap hydrogen cars could roll out in a decade

Posted by Paul Willis, EarthTechling

A new process for producing fuel cells could help bring the cost of hydrogen cars down significantly within 10 years, researchers claim.

Staff from the University of Connecticut developed the process, which involves spraying atom-sized particles of a catalyst onto a membrane, to produce hydrogen fuel cells.

They say that the same technique could also be used to make lithium-ion batteries, the kind used in most electric and hybrid cars.

The potential benefits of hydrogen fuel cell cars have long tempted auto makers. They have low emissions, no moving parts and because they generate power on board in fuel cells, they don’t need the long charging time of electric vehicles.

But the high production cost of the fuel cells has put the cars out of the price range of most consumers. The holy grail of many researchers has therefore been to find a way to get these costs down.

In order to make the fuel cells a catalyst is needed that can withstand the highly acidic solvents necessary to turn hydrogen into electricity. The only elements capable of this are platinum and iridium, which are both rare and expensive.

The new technique involves firing the catalyst on to the membrane in the form of a gas flame. The flame-based dispersion means the metal bonds quicker, eliminating the need for repeated binding and drying steps.

Professor Radenka Maric, who developed the process at the University of Connecticut’s Center for Clean Energy Engineering, said it used 10 times less catalyst material and produced significantly less waste.

The research by Maric, who is internationally recognized for her work with fuel cells, thin films and nanomaterials technology, could not have come at a better time. Several major auto manufacturers are in the process of developing their own hydrogen fuel cell cars.

Honda and Mercedes-Benz are already leasing them to customers in Southern California while Toyota and Hyundai plan to bring out their own models by 2015. General Motors, meanwhile, has produced a limited number of hydrogen-powered SUVs, some of which have been leased to the military.

Much of the interest for hydrogen fuel cell cars has been thanks to California’s clean air rules, which have forced car buyers in the state to think more seriously about investing in non-polluting vehicles.

The state’s powerful Air Resources Board issued rules in February this year which, when finally approved, will mean that by 2025 one of seven new vehicles on California roads—1.4 million altogether—must be zero-emission. By 2050, it hopes, four of five cars will be powered by batteries or hydrogen.

Car makers say they have already managed to slash the cost of building their prototype fuel cell cars. Even so, with the prices starting at around $100,000 they remain way too expensive to be commercially viable.

Paul Willis, EarthTechling