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Small business gets funding for “breakthrough” fuel cell design

Emily Smoucha
14th February 2011
A small company has won £1 million worth of funding from the Carbon Trust to develop an innovative fuel cell design that could make mass market hydrogen-powered cars a reality.
Cheshire-based ACAL Energy was chosen out of 14 entrants in the Carbon Trust’s £8 million Polymer Fuel Cell Challenge, which launched back in 2009 in a bid to accelerate the commercialisation of fuel cells in the UK. Unlike conventional polymer fuel cells, ACAL has designed one that requires 90 per cent less platinum, greatly reducing the complexity of the design and cost of production. The Carbon Trust is describing ACAL’s design as a "breakthrough" for fuel cell technology.

How a fuel cell works
Fuel cells produce electricity like a battery but are fuelled like an engine or a boiler. They work by efficiently converting the chemical energy contained in a fuel directly into electricity. They are already used to power machinery, such as forklift trucks and mobile phone masts, but remain too expensive to be used more widely.

Polymer fuel cells – also known as PEM fuel cells – are the most commonly used fuel cells, but require expensive platinum catalysts to react oxygen with hydrogen. The necessary 56-85 grams of platinum to run a fuel cell in a car would cost roughly £2,240- £3,360, making them too expensive to mass produce.

Liquid catalyst

Instead of platinum, ACAL’s design uses a low cost liquid catalyst. Analysis by the Carbon Trust estimates that the cost of fuel cell production using the liquid catalyst could be reduced by up to 40 per cent when put into mass production. The design not only reduces the cost of fuel cell production, but it also decreases the complexity, the Carbon Trust said.

"We believe ACAL’s transformational approach is one of the biggest breakthroughs in fuel cell technology since the 1980s when fuel cells moved from the space programme to industrial applications. In one step, ACAL’s technology solves fundamental issues of cost and performance which the fuel cell industry has been trying to overcome for the past 20 years, in particular for automotive products, which are the most challenging applications for fuel cells," said Dr Robert Trezona, research accelerator director at Carbon Trust.

Cheaper than an EV
Hydrogen-powered fuel cell cars produce zero carbon emissions while retaining the capability to drive the distances of combustion-engine cars. The company says that the cost to run cars using hydrogen power could even cost less than plug-in hybrids or battery-only electric vehicles.

"The Carbon Trust’s PEM Challenge programme will enable us to accelerate development of our technology for use in cars," said Dr S.B. Cha, ACAL Energy cep. "While ACAL will initially offer products for use in stationary power applications, our longer-term focus remains automotive."

Estimates put mass-market application of such fuel cells to be worth over £180 billion by 2050.

ACAL Energy was founded in August 2004 with funding from the Carbon Trust, among others.

"We are backing a British company that is taking on the world. Its step-change fuel cell technology can be produced at scale and deliver major cost reductions – which could make affordable, fuel cell cars a reality for the first time," said Trezona.

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