USA: Polyfuel claims breakthrough in technology for automotive application fuel cells

By just-auto.com editorial team | 7 October 2004

PolyFuel, a firm that engineers membranes for fuel cells, is claiming a breakthrough in technology that it says could ultimately make hydrogen fuel cell powered automobiles a commercial reality.

At the heart of the claimed breakthrough is a new family of membranes - the crucial heart of a fuel cell - that the company says exhibit a set of performance characteristics never before simultaneously achieved in hydrogen-based fuel cells. It says the new higher performance membranes have already been introduced for the compact, portable, methanol-based fuel cells that are widely being developed to replace batteries in portable electronic devices such as notebook computers and cell phones.

"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."

On the assumption that automotive fuel cells will ultimately meet the stringent requirements demanded by automakers, and once the fuel delivery infrastructure begins to approach reasonable levels, adoption by consumers of the pollution-free vehicles will begin gaining momentum, according to most analysts. But none of this will occur until automotive fuel cells see a step-function improvement in
Capability, Polyfuel maintains.

The company says that the principal limitation has always been the fuel-cell membrane, a thin film of sophisticated material resembling plastic wrap that makes fuel cells possible. Since the first practical fuel cells were designed for the Gemini space program nearly 40 years ago, the best available membrane material has
been based upon Du Pont's Teflon - the same polymer used to coat non-stick cookware - and, as it turns out, used to make the "miracle" fabric Gore-Tex. These "perfluorinated" membranes, as insiders call them, have resulted in workable fuel cells, but - depending upon the application - the manufacturing cost, the performance, and the reliability of the membrane have always been limitations, Polyfuel says.

In automotive applications, perfluorinated membranes are currently far too expensive, have to operate at such low temperatures that standard radiators cannot be used, need carefully controlled environments (adding complexity and limiting durability), and have inadequate lifetimes, Polyfuel maintains.

As a result, a fuel cell powered vehicle today would be too costly to compete with either hybrid or internal combustion engine vehicles. In addition, consumers would not have the performance and reliability they have come to expect from motor vehicles.

PolyFuel claims that its new technology will mitigate many of these shortcomings.
PolyFuel's membrane technology uses new hydrocarbon-based polymers that it says show improved operating characteristics over perfluorinated membranes, at substantially reduced cost.