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Making New Energy Sources An Easier ‘Cell’

A Mountain View company hopes to make fuel cells more efficient by creating a better electricity conductor, which could mean longer running, battery-powered consumer devices.

It’s a given: Old energy sources such as oil and the lithium battery will ultimately be replaced by fuel cells, which will create enough clean power to less expensively and more efficiently run everything from cars to computers. 

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to see Polyfuel’s membrane

With the promise of automobiles that no longer depend on foreign gas and laptops that run three times as long without plugging in, it’s no wonder electronics manufacturers, auto makers, and pioneering start-ups are scrambling to create the best fuel cell.

But PolyFuel, a Mountain View, California technology company, has approached the fuel cell problem from a different angle. It doesn’t aspire to build a better power source, but rather to make current designs work better by refining its central component: the membrane.

At its heart, a fuel cell is essentially a two-sided chemical reaction chamber – an anode and a cathode, separated by a membrane. The fuel cell creates power by splitting fuel molecules on one side – the anode – into positive protons and negative electrons, and running the negative particles out.

The membrane, a specially treated material which typically looks like a piece of cellophane, is in essence the straw that stirs the drink. Coated with a catalyst such as platinum power on carbon paper, the membrane encourages the positive protons to pass through it and react with oxygen (creating a by-product of water), while forcing the electrons to flow out of the cell where they create electrical current.

No matter what kind of fuel is being used, the membrane plays a central role in the whole process.  And it’s a tricky job at that. The material used to make the membrane needs to survive a challenging environment, while acting as a conductor and an insulator.  The membrane’s performance makes a big difference in how much energy is created, how much excess water or humidity is produced, and how durable and expensive the fuel cell is.

Believers say that fuel cells could eventually replace the gas tanks in our cars, and, in the shorter term, the batteries in our portable devices.  Over the years, companies have experimented with a variety of potential fuels, but in general, the most popular developments have focused on hydrogen fuel cells for cars and methanol for “micro fuel cells”, those smaller versions of the power source used to run cell phones, laptops and the like.

While fuel cells have gained notoriety recently as the future consumer electronics’ power source, hydrogen-based fuel cells have been used for decades to create power and water on space missions.  Materials such as DuPont’s Nafion have been used for the membrane for these fuel cells, but would-be competitors such as PolyFuel say that these traditional membranes are not ideally suited to the needs of a fuel cell that would power a car or a laptop.

“They’ve taken [the same] technology designed for the Gemini space program and tried to shoehorn it into auto and portable applications,” says Jim Balcom, president and CEO of PolyFuel.

Spun off from the prominent technology researcher SRI International in 1999, PolyFuel has been building on SRI’s nearly two decades of fuel cell development to create membranes that they say are a better fit for a cell phone user who doesn’t want to create water or a driver who wants their car to run reliably at different temperatures.

Focused initially on the micro fuel cell market for electronics devices, PolyFuel made headlines recently when the company announced significant breakthroughs with its hydrogen-based auto fuel cells.  Hydrogen fuel cells that use PolyFuel’s new hydrocarbon-based material, the company claims, will produce less humidity, create up to 15 percent more power, and cost less to manufacture than traditional membrane materials.

The potential market for fuel cells is huge.  By 2012, micro fuel cells will power nearly 15 percent of the world’s laptop computers, with shipments reaching 120 million units, Allied Business Intelligence Research of Oyster Bay, N.Y. has predicted.

It might take a decade or more to see hydrogen-based fuel cells powering even test vehicles for the consumer market, but the automotive market presents an even more ambitious arena for PolyFuel.  Balcom says the major auto makers are already spending “hundreds of millions of dollars” on their research and development of the technology.

“The exciting thing is just how much demand we’re seeing in both markets,” says Balcom. “The amount of pull for better membranes is great…especially the desire and demand from auto companies.”

While they have yet to sell their membranes, PolyFuel has captured much attention from electronics manufacturers and auto makers, many of whom are reportedly testing the company’s membranes in their labs.  Balcom says that all three major auto makers have tested their technology, and at least one might be moving toward a closer alliance with PolyFuel.

But many market watchers are still waiting to be impressed.

Atakan Ozbek, an analyst with Allied Business Intelligence, says he’s heard that PolyFuel’s membranes have bested DuPont’s Nafion in lab tests, “but achieving those results in real-world applications is a different thing…not just a few minutes, but thousands of hours.”

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