Fuel cells, the latest star technology out of Silicon Valley, promise renewable, emissions-free energy for everyone from San Jose start-ups to poor households in rural India. The primary obstacle so far has been price. According to the Department of Energy, the average fuel cell costs $4,500 per kilowatt, well above the $800 or $400 that diesel generators or natural gas turbines can cost.
This cost differential is largely due to the pricey platinum that fuel cells need to convert hydrogen and oxygen into energy. A group of DOE and Stanford scientists, however, has found a way to enhance platinum's reactive qualities so that fuel cells can use less of it. By diluting the metal with copper but moving the platinum particles to the alloy's surface, they created a substance that more efficiently executes the hydrogen/oxygen conversion. This means that fuel cell creators can use 80 percent less platinum than before, greatly reducing the cost of each cell.
The research team is working to amp up the efficiency even further before they put their findings into action. Meanwhile, fuel cell investors should prepare for a long-awaited payoff.