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Where are our fuel cell cars?

(Original report by Kyle Niemeyer at ArsTechnica...)

"Fuel cells are the dream power source for vehicles: they can use hydrogen and oxygen as fuel and oxidizer, respectively, and produce only electricity and water (plus a little heat). Compared to battery-powered electric vehicles, hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles offer higher energy density, which leads to greater range and lower weight. Sure, they have their downsides—such as requiring a complete hydrogen infrastructure à la oil pipelines and fueling stations—but batteries vs. fuel cells is a debate for another day (and story).

The first hydrogen fuel cell vehicle (General Motors/Chevy Electrovan) was created in 1966. Researchers have been developing proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells for past 15 years. So why don’t we see any in cars on the road? In a word: catalysts. Despite intense development, catalysts used in PEM fuel cells haven’t reached the levels of performance, lifetime, or cost to be commercially viable. In a recent issue of Nature, Mark Debe, senior scientist in the Fuel Cell Components Program at 3M, summed up the recent progress and prospects for fuel cell catalysts, including potential manufacturing issues..."

Short synopsis: current fuel cell designs require platinum as a catalyst in order to function well at low temperatures (i.e. at less than several hundred degrees centigrade) -- significantly more than is currently used as a catalyst in traditional combustion engines. There have been some improvements and minor breakthroughs, but, at current rates of improvement, it is expected to be 2017 before enough efficiency has been wrung out of experimental designs to make fuel cell engines economically (as opposed to technically) viable.

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