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Just as it appears that hydrogen fuel-cell powered cars may be about to go mainstream, Texas-based researchers believe they have developed a way of producing automotive fuel cells more cheaply.

Under most forms of fuel-cell car design, hydrogen from the car's tanks reacts with oxygen from the air. Rather than simply burning the hydrogen in a combustion engine to produce heat which is turned into mechanical work relatively inefficiently - like the BMW Hydrogen 7 demo vehicle or the new special-forces strato-droids - a fuel cell converts the energy of the reaction directly into electric power.

This means a fuel cell car gets a lot more effort out of a given amount of hydrogen than a normal combustion-engined job. As a result, it doesn't need to carry as much to have decent range, which means the fuel doesn't need to be in relatively compact cryogenic liquid storage. This in turn mitigates the issue of "boil-off", perhaps the greatest Achilles heel of the Hydrogen 7. The Beemer's fuel all boils away in a matter of days, potentially converting any garage in which it might be parked into a large fuel-air bomb.

On the other hand, fuel cells are expensive. One reason for this is that they rely on platinum catalyst to work. According to assistant prof Peter Strasser of the University of Houston, a fuel cell car using current technology normally needs 0.5 to 0.8 grams of platinum per kilowatt of output.

Platinum sells, apparently, for $26 per gram or a tad more, which means that a 115-horsepower fuel-cell stack like that in a 2006 Honda FCX contains $2,000 to $3,000 worth of platinum. Then you need to add all the other materials, manufacturing, a largish battery for peak power and efficiency, and the electric drive itself.

A regular petrol engine costs about $3,000, so the platinum costs are a serious issue for fuel cell cars. But Strasser thinks he and his team in Texas have gone some way towards cracking the problem.

"We have found a low platinum alloy that we pre-treat in a special way to make it very active for the reaction of oxygen to water on the surface of our catalyst," he said.

Strasser even believes that his new alloy, as well as being cheaper than platinum, could be more durable.

"Initial results show that durability is improved over pure platinum, but only longer-term testing can tell," he said. The team's research is published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

According to the university press release: "Strasser hopes companies will begin introducing fuel cell-powered cars within the next decade."

He's in luck, then. Honda has just announced that its latest FCX will go on sale next year.

But other noted tech companies don't like the hydrogen car plan for the future; bot-vs-bot ad firm Google, for instance, prefers "plug-in hybrid" augmented battery car technology, as favoured by Toyota. ®

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