University of Delaware’s Yushan Yan believes that fuel-cell vehicles are the way to go, because they best preserve the advantages of gasoline automobiles. Fuel cells preserve the advantages of gasoline automobiles, with low upfront costs, long driving range and fast refueling. But he also believes a new fuel-cell technology may be necessary.

Fuel-cell vehicles offer several advantages over battery-powered cars, but costs have been an obstacle. A new paper shows how an alternative technology could give fuel cells greater traction in the quest for zero-emissions vehicles.  Image Credit: Jeffrey Chase University of Delaware.  Click image for the largest view.

The pathways to zero-emission vehicles is taking two routes, one toward battery electric cars like the Tesla and the other toward fuel-cell-powered automobiles like the Toyota Mirai.

To Yan, a new approach would be a new twist on traditional fuel cells, known as proton exchange membrane fuel cells, or PEMFCs, which rely on costly platinum-based catalysts. So Yan and his research team are pursuing an alternative technology, the hydroxide exchange membrane fuel cell (HEMFC), because of its inherent cost advantages.

Yan is co-author on a new paper published in the online version of Nature Nanotechnology that he views as a roadmap to a unified strategy for HEMFC zero-emission cars based on three arguments.

Yan sees the rationale for this proposed switch as a matter of very simple arithmetic.

Yan explained, “To make fuel-cell cars a reality, the DOE (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.”

“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.”

“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,” he said.

“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.”

Finally, Yan warns that it is insufficient just to have a lower cost.

“It doesn’t work to compare our results today with those from yesterday or the day before. 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,” he said.

Here is a guy that understands what its going to take to get the mass market fuel cell on the road. Its clear for now that platinum based catalysts are just too expensive to compete. The question that’s coming is will the HEMFC technology make the cut? Can innovation, insight serendipity or creativity gets us there? Don’t bet against it.


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