The basics of a fully functional hydrogen economy have to include both efficient and inexpensive hydrogen generators and fuel cells.
Electrolytic cells generate hydrogen and oxygen gas from water using an electric current. They are not particularly efficient however, as the energy in the resulting hydrogen and oxygen is less than that which was used to split the water molecules in the first place.
In order to increase efficiency in a hydrogen generator, still nowhere close to 100%, metal catalysts can be used. Part of the problem with even the most efficient metal-catalyst electrolytic cells though, is their expense. Platinum is one such metal, which doesn’t corrode and so lasts for a long time in the cell.
Converting hydrogen into electricity is also prohibitively expensive for exactly the same reasons. Researchers at the University of Calgary have been able to develop a suitable catalyst from an alloy of iron, nickel and cobalt, which should bring the price of both electrolytic and fuel cells down considerably.
Instead of a crystalline structure, the new hydrogen generator produces an amorphous film that is both more reactive and less prone to oxidation. The new method can also be applied to pretty much any metal without requiring the use of expensive and rare metals. Increasing the efficiency of a hydrogen generator while reducing the cost could be one solid step toward a hydrogen economy.