WASHINGTON New hydrogen fuel cell membrane technology could help auto makers meet minimum requirements for engine development in future hydrogen-powered cars, the technology's developer claimed.
Hydrogen fuel cells use membranes along with other components to convert hydrogen into electricity. PolyFuel (Mountain View, Calif.) said Tuesday (Oct. 5) its hydrocarbon polymer membrane is more durable and provides more power over time than previous Teflon-based membranes in use since the 1960s.
Membrane technology has been a key stumbling block to hydrogen fuel cell commercialization, said Jim Balcolm, PolyFuel's president and chief executive. Fifteen years of intensive development have failed to come up with an alternative to perflourinated membranes. PolyFuel's "is a different approach, different chemistry," Balcolm said.
Among other things, the company claims its approach is more stable at high temperatures, requires less "humidification," is more durable and costs less than earlier technology. The company also claims a "cold startup" capability.
Balcolm said PolyFuel started its development effort by assessing the requirements for manufacturing hydrogen-powered engines and applying its hydrocarbon membrane approach at the nanotechnology level. The four-year-old company, a spinoff of SRI International (Menlo Park, Calif.), developed 140 different membranes over 14 months before coming up with the hydrocarbon membrane.
While PolyFuel's technology falls 500 hours short of the minimum 2,000 hours of operation needed for the next phase of development, Balcolm said the hydrocarbon approach met or exceeded current requirements for high-power operation, low humidity and price ($150).
Auto makers are seeking less complexity in hydrogen fuel cells before committing to the technology. A low cost, more efficient cell membrane is seen as one way of speeding acceptance.
Balcolm said PolyFuel is working with most of the leading auto manufacturers, although he declined to name them. The company is seeking a partner among the car makers to adopt the hydrocarbon membrane technology. Investors include technology and energy venture capitalists in the U.S. and Asia. So far, PolyFuel has raised $40 million in investments.
The car industry is currently investing more than $1 billion annually in hydrogen fuel cell technology. The federal government has pledged more than $1 billion over four years.