New membrane makes cheaper, stronger fuel cells

By David Forman

Dec. 17, 2004 – Experts may continue debating whether a hydrogen-powered energy infrastructure is practical, affordable or safe. But Jim Balcom is not waiting for their answer. Instead, the CEO of PolyFuel Inc. is pushing forward with what he calls a breakthrough fuel cell membrane technology — one the company claims offers dramatically superior performance and much lower cost, two critical needs of the automotive industry.

In October, the Mountain View, Calif.-based company announced a new hydrocarbon-based polymer membrane that it says operates in low humidity and high heat and produces 10 to 15 percent more power than the perfluorinated membranes currently in use.

The membrane uses a lattice of nano-structured hydrocarbons to support a grid of conductive blocks through which protons flow as the cell generates electricity.

“Each of the markets has very different requirements at the system level,” Balcom said. “Those cascade down to different requirements at the membrane level.”

By custom-designing a membrane for a specific purpose, he said, designers can avoid adding complicated and expensive systems to compensate for the buildup of heat or humidity and to avoid other environmental problems.

The company is pursuing a leadership position in the engineering of such membranes, a component Balcom compares to the microprocessor inside a computer. Just as performance improvements and technology innovations in the microprocessor market drove the computer industry forward, Balcom predicts membrane innovation will drive performance in the fuel cell market.

Atakan Ozbek, principal analyst at market research firm ABI Research, agrees. “The MEA (membrane electrode assembly) development is in the center of it all,” he said. But, he cautioned, PolyFuel will square off against competitors with deep pockets and long histories of innovation themselves.

DuPont, W.L. Gore, 3M. These are all 800-pound gorillas,” he said. “PolyFuel is a small startup.” But more than the competition, Ozbek says PolyFuel must show that its technology scales into pilot manufacturing. “They achieved these results at the lab level,” he said. “I don’t want to decrease the importance of this announcement, but the important thing is they need to achieve these results in the field.”

Design of the automotive fuel cell began 14 months ago. Balcom said customers had validated the design, though he declined to name them. This is the second fuel cell membrane PolyFuel has announced that is custom-tailored toward a specific vertical market. Previously, the company rolled out a membrane for use in direct methanol fuel cells, a likely candidate to power next-generation portable electronics.

The company is also in talks with companies active in other fuel cell markets, such as stationary electricity generation and backup power. Balcom said he believes the portable power market will mature much earlier than fuel cells.

The company plans to generate revenues in earlier-maturing markets to underwrite expansion as it gears up to supply bigger, later-maturing markets like automotive. Nevertheless, he said, “We approach this market (automotive) with a healthy degree of skepticism. Fuel cells have been five years away for the past 15 years.”

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