The modern internal combustion engine was created in the 1870s, but it wasn’t until the Model-T Ford began production in 1908 that automobiles reached the mass market. Similarly, fuel cells have been around since 1966, when General Motors unveiled the ‘electrovan’ – a puttering machine which took thirty seconds to go from 0-to-60 mph. But in the half century since, fuel cell vehicles have struggled to gain any purchase with consumers. Much of this is to due with a lack of supporting infrastructure or economies of scale, but fuel cells also face some tough economic realities. The need for a precious metal, platinum, in fuel cell catalysts has meant that fuel cells have a significant price floor.
In an attempt to deal with this, the US Department of Energy is targeting catalyst to try and drop the materials cost of fuel cells. The Department is funding the Los Alamos National Laboratory to lead two consortia. The first brings together Argonne National Laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, General Motors, 3M, UTRC and Vanderbilt University. The researchers will be studying low-platinum catalysts. More ambitious, perhaps, is the Electrocatalysis Consortium, which will see Los Alamos, Argonne National Laboratory, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory work together to design an entirely platinum-free catalyst, probably carbon-based. If they succeed, then hydrogen fuel cell vehicles may finally have their Henry Ford moment.