As hydrogen fuel cells gather momentum, a new invention could be making it even easier to produce the green fuel.

Current fuel cells run at temperatures of 1,500 to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit (800 to 1,000 degrees Celsius). Just reaching working temperature requires energy, and the heat quickly wears out metal, plastic and ceramic components. Prevailing fuel-cell designs also require an expensive platinum catalyst.

New nano-sized technology could allow fuel cells to run at much lower temperatures, such as 122 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit (50 to 100 degrees Celsius).

A new way to make cubic zirconia with very small crystal sizes could be key to making hydrogen fuel cells more reliable and cost-effective. A team led by Zuhair Munir at the University of California invented a method to make oxides such as cubic zirconia (zirconium oxide) with extremely small grain sizes, on the order of 15 nanometers. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, or the size of a few atoms. At that scale, the crystals conduct electricity very well, through the movement of protons. The material could be used in fuel cells that are
based on chemical oxides.

A patent application has been filed for the technology.