Volkswagen and Stanford University say they have jointly developed a procedure that will significantly reduce the cost of fuel-cell technology.

One of the biggest cost drivers for fuel cells is the use of platinum, which is required as a catalyst to operate the fuel cell. In the catalytic process, platinum is distributed as particles on carbon powder. However, since the process only takes place on the surface of the platinum particles, large quantities of the costly material are wasted.

In the new process, the partners say that the platinum atoms are precisely placed on a carbon surface in a way that produces extremely thin particles. They say that the new process not only reduces the amount of platinum required, but it also increases the efficiency of the catalyst by a factor of three compared to current technology and increases the catalyst’s durability.

“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,” said Professor Friedrich Prinz of Stanford University. “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.”

The fuel cell has great potential in emission-free mobility. The advantages over battery-electric vehicles are significant—cars with fuel cells are comparable to conventional combustion engines in terms of efficiency, range, and refueling times. Plus, the vehicle only gives off water and heat as emissions.

With the help of the new catalyst technology, there is potential for greater economic efficiency that could make the fuel cell a real alternative to battery-powered drives and the classic combustion engine. Researchers now must transfer the results obtained in the laboratory to industrial-scale production.