A team of researchers based in Europe has developed a hydrogen fuel cell that switches out rare and costly platinum and replaces it with iron, lowering one of the key barriers to a technology that many hope can help decarbonise heavy transport, shipping and aviation.

Hydrogen fuel cells convert hydrogen to electricity with water vapour as the only by-product, making them a sustainable alternative – as long as the hydrogen is sources from renewables – for portable power, particularly in vehicles.

Currently, however, fuel cells rely on a catalyst made of platinum, which is expensive and scarce – according to the researchers – and accounts for around 60% of the cost of a single fuel cell.

To get around this, the EU team, team led by Imperial College London, have created a catalyst using only iron, carbon, and nitrogen – materials that are cheap and abundant – and successfully demonstrated that it can be used to operate a fuel cell at high power.

The team’s breakthrough was to produce a catalyst where the iron was dispersed as single atoms within an electrically conducting carbon matrix, making it more reactive.

In its lab tests, the team showed that a single-atom iron catalyst had performance approaching that of platinum-based catalysts in a real fuel cell system.