Not that we really know our way around a fuel cell engineat allbut it appears two companies called QuantumSphere and PolyFuel are all set (or hyped, anyway) to be on the ground level of enabling technology for the new car revolution: QuantumSphere’s nano nickel process (patent pending) is expected to commoditise fuel cell catalysts by replacing expensive platinum with >20nm nickel droplets; just as PolyFuel’s hydrocarbon-based cell membranes are expected to make the whole fuel cell operating temperature issue moot (Honda apparently used their gear to get that FCX made street legal this week). So while the next stop is probably not silent hydrogen powered cars, at least we’re well on our way, yeah?
QuantumSphere, one of several companies investigating materials that could become alternatives to platinum, has developed a nano nickel material that costs only a quarter as much as platinum, according to the company’s chief scientific officer, Douglas Carpenter. Platinum costs about $10,000 per pound, while nano nickel can be mass-produced for a fraction of that, according to Carpenter.
Carpenter said the nano nickel can be created by boiling nickel and then re-condensing it into droplets smaller than 20 nanometers. "Nano nickel acts more like platinum than nickel," Carpenter said, in describing the material’s physical properties. Carpenter said the company has applied for three patents for its production technology. "Nano nickel has the potential to replace platinum as the main catalytic material in a variety of hydrogen fuel cells," Carpenter said. "In 10 years, (nano nickel) will become commoditized."
Carpenter said his company’s nano nickel is currently being tested at the California Institute of Technology, and he hopes to have a fuel cell large enough to power a vehicle within a year. Carpenter said nano nickel could also be used to construct fuel-cell membranes, the thin layers that allow protons to flow through while redirecting electrons to an external circuit. QuantumSphere recently constructed two nano nickel production facilities and will begin selling the material, which can also be used in military applications and consumer electronics, during the first quarter of 2005.
"There needs to be significant cost reductions in all of the elements for fuel-cell vehicles to be commercially viable," according to John Boesel, president and CEO of WestStart-CalStart, a nonprofit organization advocating the use of clean fuels. Boesel said the federal government needs to provide additional financial support, but the Department of Energy is waiting for some breakthroughs in the industry before expanding investment in hydrogen research.
Current fuel-cell membranes are not ready for consumers because they are too costly and they have difficulty operating at extreme temperatures, according to Jim Balcom, CEO of PolyFuel. Balcom said Honda and his company are each developing membranes based on hydrocarbons that would cost less and perform better than the perfluorinated membranes currently used in many fuel-cell vehicles.
Balcom said his company has developed a polymer membrane that enables fuel cells to operate at up to 95 degrees Celsius, whereas other membranes can have problems above 80 degrees Celsius and below freezing. "Fuel cells are limited by the characteristics of their membranes, much like computers are limited to the performance of their CPU," he said.
The advantages of hydrocarbon-membrane technology will make it easier for fuel cells to meet consumer expectations, according to Balcom. He said given recent advances in technology, fuel-cell vehicles are likely to become commercially viable within the next five to 10 years.