The precious metals are needed because of their ability to survive the acidic environment created by the presence of ionic hydrogen. Lin Zhuang of Wuhan University in China has developed a different fuel cell using a nickel catalyst on the anode. This catalyst triggers the generation of hydroxyl (OH) ions which are alkaline. Unfortunately, the current polymer membranes can't conduct these hydroxyl ions so the Chinese researchers developed a new membrane material that can pass these ions. The team also added chromium to the nickel to help prevent oxidation of the catalyst. So far, the power outputs being achieved are low but this is definitely a research path that has some potential for reducing the cost of the cells. Thanks to Martin for the tip!
[Source: Technology Review]