Tech Insights

Catalyst Research Could Reduce Hydrogen Fuel Cell Costs

December 14, 2023 by Claire Turvill

High costs in materials and production are holding back the scalability of hydrogen fuel cells, but researchers have found a way to reduce costs by improving materials and processes in making fuel cells.

Hydrogen fuel cells could offer solutions to various challenges in renewable energy. They produce electricity without greenhouse gas emissions, provide efficient energy storage, and enable the development of zero-emission vehicles, offering diversity and independence for regions and nations.


Hydrogen fuel storage.

Hydrogen fuel storage. Image used courtesy of NASA


However, two main challenges remain before fuel cells can be widely implemented: reducing costs and improving durability. Researchers from the SLAC National Accelerator and Stanford University may have made significant progress in resolving those issues by improving fuel cell catalysts.


Fuel Cell Catalysts

A catalyst is used in a hydrogen fuel cell to expedite and facilitate the electrochemical reactions occurring within the cell. Generally made with expensive platinum or platinum-based materials, the catalyst helps speed up the conversion of the chemical energy from the fuel and the oxidant into electricity.


Parts of a fuel cell.

Parts of a fuel cell. Image used courtesy of the Department of Energy


The SLAC and Stanford research focused on cutting costs to improve scalability by finding methods to reduce the catalyst’s expense. The researchers addressed cost concerns by partially substituting the platinum materials with a more economical alternative: silver. 

However, fundamentally altering a fuel cell’s chemical poses another challenge as catalysts that prove effective in small-scale laboratory settings don’t always adequately perform when implemented in practical, real-world fuel cell setups.


Reducing Cost to Scale Application

The true breakthrough came from simplifying the chemical process required to apply the catalyst to the cell’s electrodes, ensuring that others could replicate the process at full scale. 

Traditionally, the catalyst is blended into a liquid and applied to the mesh electrode. However, these catalyst application methods frequently yield inconsistent results across various lab environments and tools. This variability complicates the transition of such innovations into viable real-world applications.

To address the challenge of variabilities caused by the lab environment, the researchers used a vacuum chamber for greater control over the catalyst deposit. 

If the system is appropriately calibrated, other individuals can utilize the method and replicate the catalyst for practical application in the real world.


Partnership Testing of Fuel Cell Catalyst

SLAC’s catalyst research has been successfully applied in a practical fuel cell device in collaboration with the Toyota Research Institute and a partnership between Stanford and the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, 

Experts at Technion reproduced the vacuum chamber approach successfully to confirm that this technique can develop full-scale fuel cells. 

The project wasn’t initially designed for on-site fuel cell testing, but the Stanford team connected with researchers at Technion who were equipped to conduct the actual fuel cell testing. 

The team discovered that replacing certain expensive platinum group metals with more affordable silver in the catalyst could create a fuel cell that performs just as effectively but at a considerably reduced cost. 


Projected demand for hydrogen fuel.

Projected demand for hydrogen fuel. Image used courtesy of the Department of Energy


With a successful approach established for catalyst development, they are now poised to explore more ambitious concepts, including the possibility of eliminating platinum group metals from the catalyst altogether.