20 May 2009 00:00 [Source: ICB]
BASF spearheads evolution of hydrogen fuel cell technology with the start-up of its new fully integrated MEA production line.
German chemical major BASF took a leap forward in the ongoing movement toward renewable energy sources when it opened the first-of-its kind integrated fuel cell facility in Somerset, New Jersey, US earlier this month.
The facility houses an integrated assembly line from starting raw materials to the finished product - a high-temperature membrane electrode assembly (MEA) unit.
The MEA, the heart of the fuel cell, can now be made commercially available for use in fuel cell technology, says BASF.
The high-temperature MEA unit allows fuel cells to operate at temperatures in the range of 320–360°F (120–180°C).
Compared to conventional low-temperature fuel cell systems, which operate at a maximum of 175°F, fuel cells using high-temperature MEAs are tolerant to impurities in hydrogen gas, according to Horst-Tore Land, CEO of BASF Fuel Cell.
The latter can be cooled by air, eliminating the need for extra equipment such as air humidifiers, water pumps, tanks, valves, and cleaning systems. In addition, the higher temperature gives the anode in the MEA unit a higher tolerance to carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning, allowing it to operate at 1–2% CO.
"This means the reforming or cracking step is made far simpler and less costly," says BASF.
Further, since the higher temperature is over the boiling point of water, these high temperature fuel cell can produce high quality heat for systems that are designated to not only provide electricity, but also hot water for homes.
"This combination can lead to very efficient use of fuels such as methane," BASF says.
In comparison, low-temperature fuel cell systems require a large number of ancillary units, a complex control and hydration system and a reformer with a hydrogen gas purification unit in order to function.
Other downsides include the requirement of water in the electrode membrane, which means devices using low-temperature fuel cells must have sophisticated water controls. Another downside is that pure hydrogen must be used, whereas high temperature fuel cells can operate on natural gas.
The comparative efficiency of high-temperature fuel cells translates into significant cost reduction, says Land.
"The most immediate challenge facing developers is to develop a highly reliable and cost effective fuel cell system for practical applications," BASF states. "The key factor in achieving this is for the system to have as few components as possible."
Production at BASF's Somerset facility depends on the size of the MEAs needed. The key strength of BASF's MEA technology is the ability to specifically customize the units.
"We can customize to fit our customers' requirements. If they are small MEAs, we can make about a few million. If they are large, we can make a few hundred thousand. The ultimate capacity really depends on the type of [fuel cell] product," says Land.
Another key cost element is the platinum used as the catalyst in the electrode. BASF has been able to cut platinum loading by 50%, which lowers the cost of manufacturing significantly, he adds.
"Platinum is not a cheap substance. But you only have to pay for the platinum used once. Companies can recycle the platinum," Land says.
Although the platinum may lose its catalytic properties upon reuse as the catalyst in MEAs, it is still a precious metal that can be used in other applications, BASF explains.
The search is on to find a more cost-effective catalyst that fuel cells can use effectively.
BASF sells its MEA units under the brand name Celtec. The technology is currently used in numerous product applications including home electricity and heat supply units or backup systems to ensure electrical power in the event of an outage in a primary energy source.
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