Fuel cells are often considered a significant part of the future energy mix, though that future always seems to be a few decades away.

That's partly down to the inefficient and rarely particularly green methods used to produce hydrogen, but it's as much about the cost of developing fuel cell vehicles and the expensive cells themselves.

New technology which does away with the expensive platinum used in fuel cells could change that, says Consumer Reports.

Existing fuel cells combine oxygen and hydrogen through a platinum-coated membrane to generate electricity, then used to power the vehicle.

Platinum, a rare and increasingly important metal--used mainly in catalytic converters in automobiles and for jewelry--is expensive, heavy and degrades with use. That isn't perfect for long-term automotive use and makes production of fuel cells incredibly expensive.

British firm ACAL Energy removes this metal from the equation, using a liquid catalyst in place of platinum in the fuel cell. It calls this liquid FlowCath, and as well as helping generate electricity within the cell, it has the side-benefit of cooling the fuel cell too.

It also prevents decay in the fuel cell, beating the U.S. Department of Energy's durability goals by a factor of two. In theory, says ACAL Energy, it could last for around 300,000 miles without degrading. Its most recent tests have passed 10,000 hours of degradation-free running over 16 months.

Unsurprisingly, these characteristics have got major automakers interested, and ACAL says six are lined up to test the new fuel cell design.

While it isn't clear which six automakers are interested, it isn't too great a leap of faith to assume they're among the recent high-profile fuel cell technology pairings--GM and Honda, Toyota and BMW, and Daimler, Renault-Nissan and Ford. Each company is planning fuel cell vehicles within the next five years, Toyota set to launch its car as soon as 2015.

Fuel cells may still be a few years away from widespread use--and the world still lacks a suitable refueling infrastructure to back up the vehicles--but as with battery-electric technology, small, consistent improvements will make it more and more viable.

Could this cost reduction be the largest advancement yet for the future of fuel cells?


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