Cost and durability continue to be the key challenges to fuel cell commercialization. The cost projection for an 80-kWnet automotive PEM fuel cell system based on next-generation laboratory technology and operating on direct hydrogen is $53/kWnet when manufactured at high volume (500,000 units/year), with the program targeting a cost of $40/kW by 2020. Long-term competitiveness with alternative powertrains is expected to require further cost reduction to $30/kW, which represents the program’s ultimate cost target. A reduction in platinum group metal (PGM) loading and an increase in membrane electrode assembly (MEA) area power density are required to reduce material costs to the 2020 target. DOE focuses on funding R&D approaches for the development of highly active and durable catalysts that can reduce PGM content to below 0.125 g/kW. Commercial fuel cells are expected to use PGM-based catalysts in the near term; however, reaching cost competitiveness with conventional automobiles in the long-term will require a transition from PGM-based catalysts to PGM-free catalysts. To address this issue, the program launched a consortium called ElectroCat (for Electrocatalysis consortium), under the umbrella of DOE’s Energy Materials Network. ElectroCat aims to accelerate PGM-free catalyst and electrode development; it accomplishes this by coordinating relevant expertise and tools at the national labs. Beyond catalyst R&D, the program has also been able to demonstrate major advances in the development of durable, high-performance membranes that will allow fuel cells to operate for longer periods of time under harsh conditions.
Additionally, improving durability while maintaining performance is critical to further enabling fuel cell commercialization. DOE independent validation of on-road fuel cell electric vehicles has shown a more than four-fold increase in the maximum projected durability of fuel cell systems, increasing from 950 hours in 2006 to over 4,100 hours in 2016 when projected to 10% voltage degradation. Further improvement is required to meet DOE’s durability 2020 target of 5,000 hours and ultimate target of 8,000 hours. Emphasis is placed on R&D that advances fuel cell performance and durability by addressing transport, degradation, and state-of-the-art cell component integration issues, as well as the need for new diagnostics, characterization tools, and models. FCTO recently established Fuel Cell Performance and Durability (FC-PAD), an R&D consortium led by a team of national laboratories, to directly address these topics. This core lab team also works with competitively selected industry and academic partners to advance the science and engineering of fuel cells, with a particular focus on developing durable, high-performance electrodes and MEAs.