26 March 2001 16:25 [Source: ICIS news]
The battle for position in the potentially huge market for fuel cells is hotting up.
In the past two months, two of the major chemical industry contenders for fuel cell business have made their positions much clearer. DuPont has formed a fuel cells business and Celanese has said that it is seriously considering going into the production of high temperature membrane electrode assemblies.
Hopefully, these moves are not simply further examples of chemical producers chasing downstream, added value dreams. The business at the moment is littered with companies which have decided that focus is the key and have moved away sharply from any involvement in downstream markets they don't fully understand - or, rather, can't realistically service effectively. One would like to think that these are just two examples of companies with the right products who, at the right time, can begin to make headway in a significant new market place.
DuPont thinks that the fuel cell market will be worth $10bn (Euro11.2bn) by as soon as 2010. It is talking now about using its engineering polymers, perfluorinated membranes, conductive polymers, acrylic elastomers and other products in the heart of the fuel cell. The company says more than 50% of the fuel cell 'stack' can be made from its materials.
Many automotive engineers and designers think that fuel cells will be the alternative power source for the cars of the future. They predict that there will be a significant increase in the number of alternate power vehicles on the road in the US as early as 2005.
A lot of this is driven by legislation in California but the business does also seem now to have a wider momentum of its own. Dual fuel automobiles are probably the key to the rapid development of the technology but it is also being applied extensively in static power delivery systems and in power generation. Each of these systems will need a membrane electrode unit but some will also create new outlets for high performance polymers.
DuPont is linking its Fluorproducts, iTechnologies, Engineering Polymers, Corporate Research & Development and DuPont Canada organisations in the new fuel cell business. It will probably commercialise technologies from each of these operations. The company opened a fuel cell technology centre near Wilmington, Delaware, in the US last year.
At first, the new business will sell advanced materials, including perfluorinated membranes which have been used in fuel cells in space since the 1960s. Then it is likely to supply fuel cell developers with fuel cell stack components such as membrane electrode assemblies and conductive plates. DuPont is also actively looking into direct methanol fuel cell technology.
This is where Celanese may have stolen a march on competitors by developing the first membrane electrode assembly which can operate reliably at temperatures up to 200 degrees centigrade. It uses polybenzimidazole, a temperature-resistant polymer with, according to Celanese, good membrane characteristics.
The high temperature membrane electrode assembly (MEA) is probably key to the development of direct methanol fuel cell technology. At high temperatures the MEA is much less sensitive to the catalyst toxin, carbon monoxide, which is formed when methanol is converted to hydrogen. Cutting back on the need to purify hydrogen creates a simpler fuel cell and one that, ultimately, is more efficient.
Celanese board member, Ernst Schadow, said at the annual results presentation on 21 March that Celanese only went into partnership with car and engine maker Honda and with Plug Power, a manufacturer of static fuel cells, when it was sure it had a superior membrane product. Tests have also shown that there is scope for using the company's technical polymers, Fortron and Vectra, to make fuel cell components but it is unclear what the potential for these polymers in fuel cell applications may be.
For Celanese, the next step is a pilot plant for the production of membrane electrode assemblies. That plant is expected to be onstream from the beginning of next year. A decision on commercial production is likely to be made some time in 2002.
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