Is This New Fuel Cell Catalyst a Game Changer for Hydrogen Vehicles?

The Toyota Fuel Cell Concept (FCV) at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show. Source: Toyota Motor.

Fuel cell electric vehicles, or FCEVs, may have just taken a giant step closer to widespread adoption. Why? Researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have jointly developed a new type of fuel cell catalyst that has more than 30 times the catalytic activity than conventional catalysts and uses 85% less platinum. That's potentially great news for Toyota Motor (NYSE: TM  ) , Honda Motor (NYSE: HMC  ) , and Hyundai Motor (NASDAQOTH: HYMTF  ) . 

Nanotechnology to the rescue
One of the main barriers to widespread FCEV adoption is the high cost of fuel cell catalysts. This is because they rely on platinum. In fact, the Energy Department estimates that platinum can account for 50% of a fuel cell's cost. Luckily, the new class of catalysts being developed by Argonne and Lawrence Berkeley help solve this problem. Here's how.

Uniform polyhedron. Source: Tomruen via Wikimedia Commons.

Fuel cell catalyst researchers conventionally use polyhedra, or small, solid nanoparticles of pure platinum. However, when scientists at the labs combined platinum and nickel nanoparticles to make an alloy -- and then exposed that solution to air for two weeks -- it reacted with oxygen and dissolved the particle's nickel interior. The result was a dodecahedron nanoframe, which is a three-dimensional, 12-sided, hollow structure a thousand times smaller in diameter than a human hair.  

Further, the Energy Department states: "The research team then took the nanoframes a few steps further -- applying heat to form a thin topmost skin of platinum atoms over the remaining nickel and encapsulating an ionic liquid in the nanoframe to allow more oxygen to access the platinum atoms during the fuel cell's electrochemical reaction." 

To put the above in layman's terms, what researchers did is create a hollow frame of the original polyhedron so, instead of a solid particle of pure platinum, what's left is just a frame with platinum-rich edges. Thus, the amount of platinum needed is greatly reduced. Moreover doing this makes the catalyst more efficient because the surface area is increased, and the catalyzed molecules can contact the structure from more directions.

Future promise
Right now, the new catalysts are still in the early stages of research, but scientists at the labs believe they hold strong promise for fuel cell vehicles. Furthermore, the nanoframes have already been lab-tested with conditions associated with vehicle use, and the result was that after 10,000 cycles, the nanoframes showed no decrease in activity -- that's pretty impressive. 

2015 Tucson Fuel Cell. Source: Hyundai.

The above is especially great news for Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai because all three are betting on a hydrogen fuel cell future. Plus, they are actively pursuing ways to make their vehicles more cost-competitive and thus, widely adopted. In fact, Reuters reports that Toyota is willing to sell its FCV at a loss just to popularize the new technology. This is the same strategy Toyota used with its Prius, which Reuters states, "with other hybrids, now accounts for 14 percent of Toyota's annual sales, excluding group companies, of around 9 million vehicles."  

What to watch
Currently, there are still barriers to widespread FCEV adoption. However, these barriers are becoming smaller by the day. Furthermore, a fuel cell that uses 85% less platinum and has 30 times more catalytic activity is a great step toward furthering an FCEV future. Consequently, if you're looking to invest in the future of FCEVs, I'd take a closer look at the above three auto companies betting on hydrogen.

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Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On May 12, 2014, at 8:27 AM, Jason87467 wrote:

    Why is this good news for Toyota, Honda and Hyundai with GM and Ford not included? After all, these new breakthroughs are from American entities. GM was the leader and still is and has invested heavily on fuel cell research. Why does the media in many cases put foreign companies ahead of American companies? Wake up writer!!

  • Report this Comment On May 12, 2014, at 10:22 AM, Gaby wrote:

    People don't know but GM, Ford and Chevy are less Made in USA than Toyota and Honda, remain just the American name. Ford and Chevy are assembled just 68% in US and Toyota and Honda are assembled 84% in US and they create more jobs in US. This is not just on automobiles industries, lot of American brands move their factories oversee because of greed and this is why more good pay jobs disappears.

  • Report this Comment On May 12, 2014, at 2:08 PM, RHO1953 wrote:

    You won't save a single penny, in fact, you will probably pay more for this technology than you do now. Your new fuel cell car will cost a lot more, and your new style fill up won't be cheaper. The talking heads will gush about how you are "saving the planet", but it is just another shell game, and the house always wins.

  • Report this Comment On May 12, 2014, at 2:44 PM, nswanberg wrote:

    Another gasp by the petroleum industry to promote fuel cell vehicles over electric vehicles. On this planet hydrogen is not an energy source.

  • Report this Comment On May 12, 2014, at 2:59 PM, Winger wrote:

    Gabby doesn't know what they are talking about. The average mid sized sedan requires about 30 hours to assemble. Does gabby really believe that 30 hours is the total man hours used to manufacture (not assemble) an automobile. Wake up misinformed jerk. The second problem I have is that US technology (and tax supported research) shod not be capitalized upon by foreign mfg. ford worked on fuel cells in the late 90's. Let's not let US technology be used to further hurt the U S economy. The economy is not in all that great of shape.

  • Report this Comment On May 12, 2014, at 7:26 PM, speculawyer wrote:

    I hope they have a technology break-through. But as with all alleged battery breakthroughs, I remain quite skeptical.

    Hydrogen is a waste of time, IMHO. No natural source of it, difficult to create, difficult to store, difficult to transport, not cheap, fuel cell stacks are expensive, there is no fueling infrastructure, etc.

  • Report this Comment On May 14, 2014, at 2:24 PM, AdamGalas wrote:

    Fuel cells will never beat battery EVs.

    Well to wheel efficiency of EVs will always be higher than fuel cells because taking electricity into battery is one less step than producing hydrogen.

    This means that electricity will always be cheaper than hydrogen.

    Fuel cell stacks will always be more expensive than batteries, so upfront cost will be higher.

    Electric infrastructure will need upgrading due to age. This will mean a smart grid and fuel a car anywhere.

    Compare that to a non existent hydrogen infrastructure that would require trillions of dollars and isn't necessary for our existing economy, (unlike electric grid).

    To summarize:

    Fuel cells: always more expensive upfront, higher fuel cost, lower efficiency, (also lower reliability because catalysts need replacing).

    EVs will eventually replace gas cars, fuel cells will be a solution for space where water generated as byproduct is useful.

    Fuel cells as investment? A fool's errand (and not the good kind).

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Katie Spence

Katie Spence has been a financial journalist for The Fool since 2011. She specializes in defense companies, “green" technology, autos, and robots. Follow her on Twitter for breaking news in the defense, auto, and robot industry.

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