11-02-16 Perspective on Materials Development for Fuel Cells

Perspective on Materials Development for Fuel Cells

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16 Feb 2011PDF (314 kb)

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This is my first Fuel Cell Today analyst view and I would like to share a couple of initial impressions I have gained from the news in the past two weeks.

Two fuel cell technologies in particular seem to me to be firmly on the path to full commercialisation. Stationary units for combined heat and power generation and fuel cell units to power materials handling trucks appear to be selling now on their own merits and, given the benefits these products offer, it is not unrealistic to expect these sales to gain momentum.

By contrast, and as Dan has commented before, fuel cell units for portable electronics are awaiting technological developments before they can similarly compete successfully in an open market. What I find encouraging here is the number of novel materials emerging from research – many observers have contended that we live in the ‘materials age’, with some justification. While nanotechnology, for instance, may not be all that new, the field is benefiting from increasingly sophisticated analytical and synthetic techniques – allowing materials to be designed for purpose on the nano- or even molecular scale. This is well illustrated by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s development of a nanoparticulate catalyst stabiliser, in which nanoparticles of indium tin oxide are used to anchor platinum particles to the support material and, it is hoped, improve catalyst durability. Researchers are also applying nanotechnology to develop improved hydrogen storage systems. 

Market players recognise the potential of materials science to deliver step-changes in performance, as can be seen by Bing Energy’s exclusive agreement with Florida State University to use buckypaper – a sheet form of carbon nanotubes – in PEMFCs; the company believes this material may allow it to reduce platinum loadings and so produce a competitive PEM fuel cell system for portable applications. This would then join Swedish company myFC’s portable fuel cell charger, launched in the market this past fortnight. Its PowerTrekk unit makes use of a flexible PEMFC sticker which is produced on rolls in a high-volume process, hinting at considerable materials development behind this proprietary technology.

However, like any other research with the capacity to deliver revolutionary benefits, the development of new materials needs funding – moreover, it needs farsighted funding. Much valuable work may suffer from funding cuts proposed in austerity budgets that focus exclusively on shorter-term gains, but I am hopeful that privately-funded research will take up the slack.

Marge Ryan     Market Analyst

margeryan@fuelcelltoday.com

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Marge Ryan
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