New Chemistry Aims to Slash Fuel-Cell PGM Costs by 50%

Pajarito Powder plans to productionize Los Alamos catalyst R&D.

Toyota confirmed it will begin building fuel-cell modules at its assembly plant starting in 2023. (Toyota)

Hydrogen fuel cells are steadily proving to be a competitive zero-emissions solution for powering heavy trucks, railway locomotives and ships, as well as for various stationary-energy applications. The cost of hydrogen fuel is coming down, with production of “green” hydrogen at parity with the price of diesel in some regions, according to recent industry reports. And production scale is playing a major role: studies by McKinsey & Co. and Deloitte have shown the cost delta of fuel-cell systems for trucks versus equivalent diesel powertrains to be narrowing, based on annual production volumes of 150,000 vehicles.

Pajarito Powder CEO and co-founder Tom Stephenson. (Lindsay Brooke)

The cost reductions are being driven mainly by industrialization of the fuel-cell system. “Everything except the catalyst in a typical system – the bi-polar plates, the membrane material and related components – has potential for economies of scale,” explained Tom Stephenson, CEO and co-founder of Pajarito Powder, an Albuquerque, New Mexico-based manufacturer of catalysts for use with proton-exchange membrane (PEM) and alkaline fuel cells and electrolyzers. “It’s the catalyst that is 40 percent of the overall cost, because of its PGM [platinum group metals] content,” he said, noting the most recent U.S. DOE projection for fuel-cell cost based on 500,000-unit volume.

Stephenson cited the hydrogen-fueled Hyundai Nexo SUV, the only production fuel-cell vehicle to have published data on platinum content. The Nexo’s catalyst has 56 grams of platinum; as of mid-August 2022, platinum was trading at $31 per gram, leaving the platinum content alone at a cost of $1,736. “Do the math; it’s clear that catalyst costs must be reduced,” he said. “But the challenge is, in large part, not about eliminating the platinum, but making it more effective. That equates to less platinum loading per fuel cell. We’re able to deliver a catalyst that can cut the amount of platinum per fuel cell in half.”

During an interview with SAE Media, Stephenson showed a market sample of the black powder catalyst material Pajarito plans to manufacture that promises to be a game-changer for automotive hydrogen-propulsion economics. He explained that the powder is the result of research on platinum-free catalyst formulations done at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and the University of New Mexico, which license the technology to Pajarito Powder for commercialization. Both institutions serve as ongoing R&D partners. The Pajarito name comes from the area in New Mexico where LANL is located.

The catalyst is 40% of a fuel cell’s overall cost due to its PGM content. (Pajarito Powder)

Hyundai Motor Co., long active in hydrogen fuel-cell development, is among Pajarito Powder’s investors. Pajarito also has done a DOE grant project as a subcontractor to General Motors, Stephenson noted. Hyundai is helping to fund Pajarito’s next big project: a new manufacturing facility to expand operations. Pajarito Powder’s patented-and-trademarked VariPore process is readily scaled for high-volume manufacturing, Stephenson said.