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Breakthrough fuel-cell technology promises to make futuristic cars affordable

Consumer Reports News
Breakthrough fuel-cell technology promises to make futuristic cars affordable

As any auto show attendee can attest, the cars of the future have long been forecasted to be powered by fuel cells, rather than rely on gasoline for motivation. Durability and affordability have been formidable obstacles to widespread adoption, but that is to change thanks to a breakthrough by a British company.

ACAL Energy has developed a new type of fuel cell that its engineers claim will last up to 300,000 miles without degradation.

Fuel cells combine oxygen and hydrogen to produce electricity, and they emit only water as a byproduct. Almost all recent prototypes demonstrated in cars have been proton exchange membrane fuel cells, which pull oxygen ions through a platinum-coated membrane to bond with the hydrogen. The platinum, which acts as a catalyst to start the chemical reaction, has been the primary issue. Platinum is expensive, heavy, and deteriorates with use. (Learn more about how fuel cells work.)

To learn more about electric cars and hybrids, visit our alternative-fuel car guide.

ACAL says it uses a new liquid catalyst that it calls FlowCath to replace the platinum. FlowCath cools the fuel cell at the same time it catalyzes the process, removing most of the decay mechanisms that plagued earlier platinum fuel cells, says ACAL. The FlowCath fuel cell produces about 135 hp at dramatically lower cost than earlier fuel cells, and it beats the U.S. Energy Department's durability goals by a factor of two, according to the company.

ACAL says it has six automakers lined up to test its new fuel cell, pointing to the potential the industry sees this breakthrough. (Read our drive of a Mercedes-Benz fuel-cell car.)

Fuel cells are coming to market in micro volumes; Honda, Toyota, and Hyundai have announced plans to sell production vehicles to the public by 2015.

—Eric Evarts

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