With commitments from leading car and stationary-power manufacturers to hydrogen and fuel cell technologies and the first ever fuel cell electric vehicle to go on sale later this year, interest is once again swelling in this carbon-free technology.

Now, thanks to several new projects from the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Fuel Cell Technologies Office, scientists from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) will have an important role in accelerating innovation and commercialisation of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies.

Berkeley Lab has been awarded $8m for two new DOE research efforts, one to find new materials for hydrogen storage and another for optimising fuel-cell performance and durability.

In addition, Berkeley Lab is leading a range of other hydrogen and fuel cell research projects aimed at developing next-generation fuel cell and related energy-conversion technologies.

“Berkeley Lab has had a strong fuel cell research program going back decades,” said scientist Adam Weber, who leads fuel cell research at Berkeley Lab. “With these new DOE consortiums, each national lab brings its core competences while synergistically leveraging each other. This way we’ll be able to push the state-of-the-art much faster and further than we could individually.”

Fuel cells are considered one of the most promising and fast-growing clean energy technologies.

In 2014, about 50,000 fuel cell units were shipped worldwide, with a nearly 30% market growth every year since 2010. This year, Toyota’s Mirai will be the first fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) to be commercially available for sale in the US. Still, cost remains one of the biggest challenges to wider adoption.

The Fuel Cell—Consortium for Performance and Durability (FC-PAD) is led by Los Alamos National Laboratory and includes Argonne National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, with Weber serving as the consortium’s deputy director. Its goal is to improve and optimise polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cells, which are used primarily for transportation, while reducing their cost.

“If we can make individual cells more durable and perform better with less costly components or fewer of them, than you would drive down the cost of the vehicle,” Weber said.

Specifically one research focus of Weber’s work for FC-PAD will be trying to understand and optimise mass transport in the fuel cell, or the transport of reactants and products, such as hydrogen, oxygen, and water. Mass-transport issues can limit fuel-cell performance.

“One of our core competences at Berkeley Lab is in mathematical modeling and advanced diagnostics, which we can use to study, explore, and describe the transport phenomena across length scales from the microstructural to macroscopic levels,” he said.

Like batteries, fuel cells use a chemical reaction to produce electricity. However fuel cells don’t need to be recharged; rather, they will produce electricity as long as fuel is supplied. In the case of a hydrogen fuel cell, hydrogen is the fuel, and it’s stored in a tank connected to the fuel cell.

Safe and cost-effective hydrogen storage is another challenge for FCEVs, one that the other DOE consortium, Hydrogen Materials—Advanced Research Consortium (HyMARC), seeks to address. HyMARC is led by Sandia National Laboratories and also includes Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Jeff Urban, the HyMARC lead scientist for Berkeley Lab, noted the Lab’s strengths. He said, “Berkeley Lab brings to the consortium a combination of innovation in H2 storage materials, surface and interface science, controlled nanoscale synthesis, world-class user facilities for characterising nanoscale materials, and predictive materials genome capabilities.”