In their ability to use a range of fuels, the new fuel cells are like solid-oxide ones. But the latter typically operate at high temperatures–800 °C to 1,000 °C–and require expensive materials. The new fuel cells, once in commercial production, are expected to cost about as much as solid-oxide fuel cells being sold by Bloom Energy, Chisolm says, but costs could come down quickly to about a tenth of the cost of the Bloom technology as the company develops and implements a range of cost saving measures. At that point, the fuel cells would be cheap enough to be competitive with high-efficiency turbines used in power plants.
One key challenge is reducing the amount of platinum catalyst used, says Robert Savinell, a chemical engineering professor at Case Western Reserve University. Haile and the researchers at SAFCell have already identified a platinum-palladium catalyst and catalyst deposition methods that both reduce the amount of platinum required and increase power output, but the amount of platinum needs to be reduced more. They’re developing new catalysts that take advantage of the fact that the system works at relatively low temperatures.
Another option is recycling the platinum, a relatively simple process because of the chemical composition of the fuel cells, Chisolm says. That, combined with a good financing plan, could allow the fuel cells to hit the $1,000-per-kilowatt milestone widely regarded as the point at which fuel cells will see mass adoption, he says.