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Many automotive researchers believe fuel-cell technology will whiz past batteries on the road to a practical electric vehicle. Fuel cells extract electricity from the reaction of hydrogen with oxygen and produce no nasty tailpipe pollution. Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory are solving a problem that has kept fuel cells prohibitively expensive.

Today’s fuel cells typically rely on 200 or so slabs of precisely machined graphite electrodes costing about $10 apiece. Oak Ridge materials scientist Ted Besmann has shown that it is possible to make electrodes out of a carbon-fiber composite that costs about one-fifth as much. Besmann has fabricated 3. 8-centimeter-diameter electrodes from the composite and aims by year’s end to make larger samples for testing by automobile companies.

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