UCR Science Breakthrough Could Drastically Reduce the Costs of Fuel Cells

Feb 7, 2018

Fuel cells already power some cars, but their high cost makes them hard to mass-produce.
Credit Jeff Egnaczyk/Flickr

Fuel cells are "clean" replacement technology for combustion engines, but until now required extremely expensive materials to manufacture. Researchers at the University of California, Riverside say they've developed a new material that could drastically lower the price of fuel cells. KVCR's Benjamin Purper has the story.

Researchers at the University of California, Riverside have developed a new material that could drastically lower the price of fuel cells, which can power things like cars and even airplanes.

Fuel cells are devices that use elements like hydrogen and oxygen to create power, which can then be used in anything from computers to cars to rockets. They need catalysts made out of platinum in order to do that, which has made them extremely expensive. But that might be about to change.

Dr. David Kisailus is a professor in the Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering and the Material Science and Engineering Program at UC Riverside. Kisailus led a team of researchers in creating a new type of catalyst for fuel cells. Instead of platinum, Kisailus used other, cheaper metals as catalysts.

“The metal in this case that we tested was cobalt, although we also used nickel and iron in these studies,” Kisailus says. “And so the cost of cobalt is about less than one percent of platinum.”

Kisailus and his team essentially created a material that works just as well as the platinum catalyst, but at one hundredth of the price. And that could have huge implications for mass-producing fuel cells.

“We hope to not only put this in automobiles, but in aircraft and other vehicles that need power,” Kisailus says.  

But lowering the cost of fuel cells isn’t all that Kisailus’ team hopes to do. His department at UCR also studies bio-mimetics, which takes designs from the natural world and applies them to human structures. That could actually help them embed fuel cells into the structure of the car. As in, the car door also functions as a fuel cell.

“The ultimate goal is to combine the lessons learned from biology to make the structural materials and combine those architectural designs with these active materials to make multi-functional materials,” Kisailus says. “So again, perhaps the door of the car becomes the fuel cell itself.”

The research is funded by a multi-university grant from the Department of Defense, and includes other top research universities like UC Berkeley, Northwestern, and Purdue. The paper is published in the journal Small.