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Canada mobilizes national research effort to reduce price of fuel cells

One of the largest research projects of its kind in Canada may overcome one of the biggest obstacles to the wide-scale production of fuel cell-powered vehicles—the cost.

Six Canadian companies have teamed up with 20 top fuel cell scientists and engineers from academia and government to develop a way to reduce by as much as 80%, if not eliminate, the platinum used in this next-generation of clean energy vehicles.

Canada is already a leader in both the science and commercialization of fuel cell technology. An industry-driven effort involving academia and government institutions is consolidating that expertise with a new $8.1-million project. Automotive Partnership Canada (APC) is contributing $5 million toward the research.

"Having all the major research and industry players working together is a huge value to us and to Canada," says Dr. Stephen Campbell, Principal Scientist at Automotive Fuel Cell Cooperation (AFCC), a Burnaby, B.C.-based joint-venture private company owned by Daimler AG, Ford Motor Company and Ballard Power Systems that is developing fuel cell stacks for automotive applications.

Platinum is the most common catalyst used to accelerate the chemical process in proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells. It isn't cheap, however. With the precious metal selling for about $1,500 per ounce ($48.2 per gram), the platinum catalyst alone for a compact 100-kilowat vehicle would cost between $2,300 and $3,700—which is considerable given that an entire 100-kilowatt gasoline combustion engine costs about the same.

PEM fuel cells are currently at a competitive price point for a number of near-term commercial markets, such as material handling (forklifts) and power generation for specific markets. In the bus market, the fuel cell now accounts for less than a third of the vehicle price. However, for long-term commercial viability in some applications, such as cars and portable electronics, the industry would benefit from something less expensive, better performing and more durable.

This project is leveraging Canada's expertise in materials science and engineering, electrochemistry, theory and modeling to develop catalysts that use less platinum and to explore alternatives to platinum that perform as well but are less expensive. Companies expect to begin testing new prototypes within five years.

"There's a lot of room to manoeuvre in terms of cost reduction. There may only be one troy ounce (31 grams) in a fuel cell stack, but that's still worth over $1,600. If you reduced the amount of platinum by half, you would be saving about $800 per stack, which makes these vehicles more commercially viable," says Dr. Campbell.

Shanna Knights, Manager of Research at Burnaby, BC-based Ballard Power Systems, says the goal for their heavy-duty transit bus fuel cell application is to be cost competitive with diesel-hybrid buses on an initial capital basis. The superior fuel efficiency offered by fuel cells currently results in significant operating cost and greenhouse gas emission reductions. Further cost reductions will lead more transit agencies around the world to choose fuel cell buses as their fleet vehicles.

"Getting that price down for vehicles is an important goal of the fuel cell industry," says Ms. Knights. "It will also open up new markets where we're just over the competitive price point now, including some distributed generation products (e.g. generators)."

The research teams will also work towards improving the durability and efficiency of the platinum catalyst layer, which for fuel cell manufacturers like Ballard and AFCC, would mean longer-lasting fuel stacks.

"If we can develop a deeper understanding of the processes that are occurring in PEM fuel cells, we will be able to tweak existing fuel cell components to obtain higher power density, as well as improve durability, which lowers the overall cost," says Dr. Steven Holdcroft, a chemistry professor at Simon Fraser University, and the principal investigator on the project.

Training for future jobs
Canada's competitiveness in the green economy will depend in large part on its ability to produce scientists and engineers with the right skill sets and experience in working with industry. Funding provided through APC and other sources will provide that opportunity to 90 graduate students and post-doctoral fellows over the course of the project. The demand for fuel cell experts is expected to increase as the industry ramps up over the next few years.

"Students will have a chance to work in industry labs where they can apply their theoretical learning to real world challenges," adds Dr. Holdcroft. "This next generation of researchers is essential if Canada is to remain at the forefront in this field."