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Volkswagen and Stanford want to make hydrogen fuel cells cheaper

They figured out a way to make a fuel cell work with less platinum catalyst.

VW and Stanford's cost-reducing technology for making hydrogen fuel cells could mean more FCVs on the market.
Eric Piermont/AFP/Getty Images

In the pantheon of alternative fuel cars, fuel cell vehicles don't get a ton of love. Really, the only major manufacturers that have been actively pursuing the tech as of late are Honda, Hyundai and Toyota, but that might change soon if Volkswagen has its way, owing to to new technology for producing fuel cells that it announced on Thursday.

One of the problems with fuel cell technology is the cost of making the cell itself. The process of converting hydrogen to electricity requires a platinum catalyst, and if our favorite rap albums have taught us anything, it's that platinum is expensive. In most modern systems, a carbon powder is sprayed with platinum particles, but really, only the outer layers of atoms of the platinum are doing any work, so there is a lot of wasted precious metal.

Volkswagen, in collaboration with scientists from Stanford University in California, have been working on a way to make the process much more cost-efficient. Rather than hosing carbon down with platinum, scientists have figured out how to distribute an even layer of platinum atoms that uniformly coats the carbon substrate. This way, your fuel cell will still catalyze hydrogen like it's going out of style but should cost a fraction of what it previously did to produce.

"This technology opens up enormous possibilities for cost reduction, as the amount of precious metal used is minimized. At the same time, service life and catalyst performance are increased," Professor Friedrich Prinz of Stanford University said in a statement. "In addition to the fuel cell, atomic layer deposition also offers a whole range of other applications requiring high-performance materials, such as next-generation lithium-ion batteries."

Why does this matter? Electric vehicle batteries are better than they've ever been, right? Yeah, that's true, but being able to pull up to a fueling station, fill your car up with a few pounds of hydrogen and then leave within minutes definitely has its appeal. It's clean motoring without the hassle of charging a battery. This means that it's easier for people without access to overnight charging to own clean vehicles, and if the national hydrogen network were to expand, it would make zero-emission road trips easier than ever.