Carnegie Mellon Researchers Explore Future Fuel Cell Technology


Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University recently conducted an assessment of the current and expected future cost and performance of automotive proton exchange membrane fuel cells (PEMFCs).

Despite decades of development, PEMFCs still lack wide market acceptance in vehicles, says the university. In turn, Michael Whiston, a postdoctoral research associate in engineering and public policy, and College of Engineering professors Inês Azevedo, Shawn Litster, Kate Whitefoot, Constantine Samaras and Jay Whitacre spoke with 39 experts in the field of fuel cells to understand their assessments of PEMFC costs, stack durability and stack power density under a hypothetical, large-scale-production scenario.

“Expert elicitation draws on the knowledge and experience of individuals who have worked extensively with the technology,” Whiston says, “and thus can inform the technology’s status and future trajectory. In the absence of published data or conclusive evidence, assessments from expert elicitation could be used to develop technology roadmaps, inform policymaking, guide business decisions and develop analytical models.”

In the study, the researchers asked the experts to assess the system costs, stack durability and stack power density of PEMFCs, and then to quantitatively assess what it will take to meet cost and performance goals. Most respondents anticipate that the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) cost goal would be met by 2050; this goal of $30/kW would greatly increase the likelihood of widespread adoption by the general public.

Additionally, more than 45% of respondents expect the DOE’s targets for stack durability to be met by 2050, and many anticipate that the target median stack power density could be achieved by 2035. Once these targets are hit, and PEMFCs reach more mainstream adoption, this could spell big things for the auto industry – bigger than battery-electric vehicles and even other types of fuel cells, according to the researchers.

“The benefits of PEMFCs over batteries include faster refueling times and longer ranges,” Whiston says. “Fuel cell electric vehicles refuel within five minutes and operate at ranges exceeding 300 miles. Battery-electric vehicles tend to be more limited in range, depending on the battery size and cost, and can take hours to recharge.”

The researchers’ paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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