Improving Fuel Cells Through a Membrane Make-over

Fuel cell membrane engineering firm PolyFuel has developed technology they say could help make hydrogen fuel cell-powered automobiles a commercial reality. Hydrocarbon based polymers are used in the membrane technology developed by the company. Their hydrocarbon membrane operates during periods of low relative humidity, and will also operate at temperatures up to 95 degrees Celsius (203 degrees Fahrenheit).

“A commercially-viable fuel cell for automotive applications is sort of the ‘holy grail’ among developers of advanced technology vehicles,” said Atakan Ozbek, director of energy research at ABI Research. “Ideally, you would hope for a solution that yielded vehicles with costs, capabilities, and performance similar to those on the road today. Unfortunately, current fuel cell technology has not yet reached that ideal.” A significant limitation to viability of automobile fuel cell applications is the fuel cell membrane. According to PolyFuel, the best available membrane material is a perfluorinated membrane, which is based upon DuPont’s Teflon and was used in fuel cells designed for the Gemini space program. Depending on the fuel cell application, however, the manufacturing cost, the performance, and the reliability of the perfluorinated membrane has always had limitations In automotive applications perfluorinated membranes are volatile, and the fuel cell has operate at low temperatures to keep from ruining the membrane. Standard radiators aren’t suitable or sufficient enough to keep the temperature down, so fuel cells need carefully controlled environments for proper operation. These factors have kept commercially viable fuel cell automobiles from becoming a reality, according to PolyFuel. Finally, the manufacturing cost of PolyFuel hydrocarbon membranes is already significantly less than that of perfluorinated membranes, and will go even lower with volume. Currently, it takes about $5000 worth of perfluorinated membrane to make a single fuel cell for a 100 kW (134 horsepower) vehicle. Because the PolyFuel hydrocarbon membrane has fundamental cost advantages over perfluorinated membranes, critical automotive cost targets can be realized much sooner than previously expected. “Our hydrocarbon-based membrane technology promises to give hydrogen fuel cells a step-function improvement in meeting the stringent requirements of automakers around the world, and I am confident that our unmatched engineering capability will continue to generate additional substantive improvements,” said PolyFuel President and CEO Jim Balcom.
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