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The Future of Power Is in the Fuel Cell

Dec 14, 2016 06:02 AM EST

Reducing emissions, even eliminating them altogether, has been the name of the game in transportation technology in a bid to help combat climate change. There have been two main avenues researchers have followed: battery electric cars as released by Tesla and fuel-cell-powered automobiles by Toyota.

Yushan Yan from the University of Delaware is the co-author on a new paper published in Nature Nanotechnology. He has done much research to support fuel-cell vehicles since they are able to maintain the advantages of gasoline automobiles such as low upfront cost, long driving range and quick refueling.

Given the high demand for quality and efficiency, Yan believes that a new fuel-cell technology will be needed. A new twist on traditional fuel cells, known as proton exchange membrane fuel cells, or PEMFCs, which rely on costly platinum-based catalysts is one approach being explored by Yan and his research team. They are also pursuing hydroxide exchange membrane fuel cell (HEMFC), an alternative technology that has great advantages in terms of cost.

"To make fuel-cell cars a reality, the Department of Energy has set a system cost target of $30 per kilowatt, which translates into about $2,400 per car. Right now, the cost for PEMFCs is $52 per kilowatt, which is a big improvement over where the technology started," Yan explained. "But the catalyst accounts for only about $12 of that total, leaving $40 worth of other components. So even if we throw in some magic, we can't get the rest of the way down to the target of $30 with PEMFCs."

Yan outlined 3 points in his research to lay out a roadmap to a unified strategy for HEMFC zero-emission cars: "First, to become a commercial reality, fuel-cell engines have to be at cost parity with their gasoline counterparts and moving from an acid platform with the PEMFC to a base system with the HEMFC will enable a collateral benefit in bringing down all of the associated costs."

"Then, if we agree that this is the best approach, we need to get everyone in the HEMFC research community on board. If we want to succeed, we have to work together."

His last point highlights the importance of quality and looking beyond cost.

"It doesn't work to compare our results today with those from yesterday or the day before," he concluded. "To succeed commercially with HEMFCs, we have to match or beat the performance of PEMFCs. It's that simple -- we can't succeed without achieving performance parity."

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