Despite the sluggish economy and pessimism about high- technology sectors, raw material companies and component manufacturers are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in fuel cell development.
Fuel cells are electrochemical energy devices that convert the chemical energy released when hydrogen and oxygen combine to form water directly into electrical energy. Production of fuel cells is projected to grow at rates exceeding 40% per year over the next decade. Applications for fuel cells include any device that currently uses electricity (either from batteries or the electric grid) or an internal combustion engine (ICE) for power. End uses range from automobiles and heavy trucks to complete homes and portable electronics like cell phones and laptops. Principia Partners has completed a study of the materials requirements in fuel cells. The report, entitled Materials Opportunities in Fuel Cell Technologies – 2002 and Beyond, predicts that the market for fuel cells could reach $20 billion by 2010, creating an estimated demand for specialty materials of $1.1 billion in that year.
There are several major types of fuel cells including:
Proton exchange membrane (PEM)
Solid oxide (SOFC)
Phosphoric acid (PAFC)
Molten carbonate (MCFC)
Each of these fuel cells is in different stages of development, has different application potential, and utilizes different material technologies. Specialty materials are used to fabricate various components of the fuel cells, including electrodes, current collectors, membranes, bipolar plates, catalysts, and the housings for these components.
PAFCs are commercially available and hundreds of units have already been installed in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, utility power plants, and for numerous other large, stationary applications. PAFCs typically use electrodes made of polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), carbon black and platinum metals. This type uses electrode supports of carbon fiber fabric, silicon carbide (bound with PTFE) for electrolyte support and graphite separators.
MCFCs use a liquid solution of lithium, sodium and/or potassium carbonate soaked in a matrix for an electrolyte. Their high operating temperature require anodes of nickel or chromium, cathodes of lithium-nickel-oxide or lithium carbonate and bipolar plates of specialty metals. MCFCs have been successfully used in Italy and Japan for stationary power in utility plants and landfills.
PEMFCs are perhaps the most interesting type of fuel cell. They operate at low temperature, have high power density, and can quickly vary output, making them the favored fuel cell for ground transportation applications. They are constructed from a proton conducting membrane usually made of a high temperature polymer such as PTFE, polyethersulfone, ethylene-styrene interpolymer, polybenzimidazole, liquid crystal polymer or polyaryletherketone. They have precious metal catalysts and current collectors/electrode supports of carbon paper or fabric.
SOFC is another high power fuel cell, with potential for stationary power, and some potential for use in automobiles. Because SOFCs also operate at high temperatures, they utilize such ceramic materials as yttria-stabilized zirconia electrolytes, bipolar plates of magnesia-doped rare earths, anodes of nickel/zirconia oxide and cathodes of ceria rare earths.
The forecast for any of these fuel cell technologies is highly speculative, but that has not deterred all of the major plastics producers, ceramics companies, specialty metals suppliers and carbon products producers from investing heavily in this technology. It’s no surprise since an average PEM fuel cell stack could contain up to 100 pounds of plastics in bipolar and end plates. Obviously, the opportunities for material suppliers is significant. Consequently all of the major specialty plastics suppliers including DuPont, Dow, Honeywell, Ticona, and DSM have extensive fuel cell development programs. Specialty ceramics and carbon fiber/fabric/powder producers also face excellent growth opportunities. That is why Ballard Systems, a leading PEM fuel cell manufacturer, acquired Textron’s specialty carbon products business.
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