Living on alcohol and anti-freeze

1 November 2005

The rise and rise of Acta, which has followed up a major contract for its platinum-free fuel cell catalysts with a new variant that can electrolyse hydrogen more cheaply, and a plan to expand production at its Lavoria, Italy, plant.

Fuel cell catalyst manufacturer Acta has produced a new version of its catalyst Hypermec that can use petrol (gasoline) as fuel at ordinary temperatures. It has also filed for a patent covering its low energy process for electrolysing hydrogen from water. The main advantage is energy saving in production – using the company’s newly developed Hypermec Fe-Co-Ni catalyst, H2 is produced at 2.5 V compared to the industry norm of 3.5 V to 4.2 V at the same current flow.

New techniques and achievement of the Sumitomo contract described below have encouraged Acta to expand its operations, and in September it completed its new factory in Lavoria, near Pisa in Italy. The 1000 m2 facility houses a pilot manufacturing plant capable of producing 500 kg of catalyst per annum, enough to meet the entire current global demand, and has room to expand further if necessary.

The company can reasonably claim a number of firsts. Its nanotechnology catalyst is the first platinum-free product of its type, the first low temperature direct ethanol fuel cell and the first low temperature direct ehthylene glycol fuel cell to perform total oxidation of fuel.

In June, Acta won a landmark contract for Hypermec when it signed a commercial sales and distribution deal with the chemicals business unit of Sumitomo Corp to cover Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Acta expects a competitive launch of fuel cells to the mass consumer market, mainly for laptops and mobile phones, as a result of the deal, and expects to announce other major OEM contracts in th relatively near future. Natural partners would be leading OEMs such as Nokia, Toshiba, Samsung and LG, all of which have active programmes to introduce fuel cell powered products. The supply contract was greeted with enthusiasm by Summit Medichem president Masaaki Uemura, who said ‘The initial response to the technology from some of Asia’s leading OEMs has been overwhelmingly positive. We are confident that we will be announcing OEM agreements over the next twelve months.’

The new catalyst

Catalysts are used in three main areas of the H2 economy – in hydrogen reformers, water electrolysers and in the fuel cells themselves. To date, their cost, technical factors (fuel crossover and ‘poisoning’) associated with the hydrocarbon interaction, and the temperatures needed for H2 reformation have placed severe constraints on the industry. This is the first fuel cell technology that looks as if it could eliminate the barriers to mass production and enable the use of safe and convenient fuels

Acta claims that its new catalyst solves these problems because it is cheap, available, reduces the energy required for hydrogen generation by up to 70%, and, perhaps most remarkably, can be used at low temperatures with a wide range of hydrocarbons including ethanol, ethylene glycol and even petrol. Power outputs achieved to date with these three on Hypermec are in line with the highest outputs achieved for methanol on platinum. In a self-breathing cell fuelled with ethanol at 22°C Hypermec is claimed to deliver an electrical efficiency of 40 to 45% and power densities as high as 65 mW/cm2 at voltages of 200 mV to 600 mV, depending on the membrane employed.

The new family of catalysts, based on Fe-Co-Ni nano-scale structures (Figure 1), is expected to break down the barriers to the commercialisation of fuel cells for mass market applications. As virtually a drop-in replacement for existing technology it is expected to do no less than revolutionise the $4 billion fuel cell business and provide the basis for greatly accelerated growth of the market, in particular in the new area of battery replacement, as demands on power sources for consumer items such as laptop computers outstrip the capacity of the current generation of batteries.

Key points

The key points of the new catalyst are, according to its maker, that it works as well as platinum-based catalysts on the standard fuels of methanol and hydrogen but at a fraction of the materials cost, and that it works well enough on the safer fuels such as ethanol and ethyl glycol for viable operation at room temperature, which platinum based catalysts cannot. In addition it is free from the problem of CO doping, or poisoning, a phenomenon that reduces the effectiveness of platinum based solutions over time.

It is based on the development of a Vulkan polymer used as a support substrate for near-molecular scale Fe-Co-Ni and nickel particles (Figure 2), a breakthrough that occurred as an accidental by-product of routine development work on a heavy-metal free polymer for use in water treatment plant associated with the tanning industry. The achievement of such fine structures has produced a catalyst made from relatively cheap materials but of greatly enhanced performance and range

Significant growth opportunities

Industry and media predictions suggest a future maeket in the multi billion dollar range. The current annual spend on R & D is $4-6 billion. PEM (proton exclusion membrane) fuel cells are 90 % of the market, mainly for transport and portable electronics. Leading electronics manufacturers are already stating publically that battery technology is unlikely to keep pace with the power demands of near-future electronic devices.

The fuel cell industry is currently worth $4bn per annum at what is still its development phase and revenues are forecast to grow at nearly 70% per annum to a value of US$18.5 billion by 2013 (Source: Allied Business Intelligence).

This significant potential for growth in the industry is reinforced by a number of key trends in the global energy industry such as the rising cost of oil owing to the global depletion of oil resources and the growing instability of centralised electric power structures and transmission grids. Although the fuel cell industry is forecast to grow at such a phenomenal rate, at present there are commercial barriers that prevent its full potential from being realised. Acta believes that achieving the hydrogen economy will become the largest growth industry of our generation and that fuel cells will be its major technological driver. The company also believes that a breakthrough is inevitable because moving to a hydrogen economy solves key problems – controlling escalating GHG emissions from fossil burn and from portable power, including cars, pressure on the supply of oil, and concerns about the growing supply-demand gap.

The fuel cell industry also offers a solution to the increasing inability of current battery technology to deliver the power density and longevity required by modern and near-future portable electronic devices such as laptops and multi-media mobile ‘phones. Major international companies are already investing heavily in fuel cell technology research because of the forecasts of significant growth. Early applications are likely to be portable fuel cells used either to recharge or replace batteries in laptops, mobile phones, small power generators and other portable consumer devices. There is a substantial existing market for catalysts for hydrogenation in other industrial processes. Acta believes that Hypermec catalysts will be competitive in this marketplace against the platinum alternatives.

The risks of methanol use

To date PEM cells have used hydrogen or methanol as fuel, cation exchange membranes, and platinum as a catalyst. The first article of faith in the Acta gospel is that platinum is expensive and in short supply – the annual production of 6.4 million oz has been falling short of demand for the last six years. Further, the phenomenon of carbon monoxide poisoning of the catalyst in use tends to limit to hydrogen and methanol the fuels that can be employed.

The second is that pure hydrogen is impractical, by virtue of its cost of production and the difficulties in transporting, storing and using what is a relatively dangerous fuel, and so is much more likely to reach the user chemically packed in consumer friendly hydrocarbons. Methanol is the current hydrocarbon in use, but it too has its dangers – its transportation and storage is restricted owing to its volatility and toxicity, it is prohibited from entering the retail market, and it releases CO2, a legacy of its fossil origin. But ethylene glycol, says Acta, is ideal for the purpose.

Acta’s new catalysts are the first to provide the option of using ethanol as a fuel. Ethanol is already a safe, practical and widely distributed material. It has a comparable energy content to gasoline, can be transported and distributed through the existing gasoline distribution infrastructure and can be produced by national agricultural resources.

Because hydrogen and methanol are usually produced from fossil sources they can only offer an incomplete solution to global warming or to the finite supply of fossil fuel. Acta’s catalysts. say the company, open the long term opportunity for the industry to exploit ethanol as a fuel, which can be produced on a non-polluting, renewable basis from biomass.

Figure 1. STEM images of Fe-Co-Ni particles supported on Vulkan XC-72 at magnification x800 000. It is possible that single atoms are present on the support matrix. Figure 2. Size distribution of Fe-Co-Ni particles supported on Vulkan. Note that most metal clusters are smaller than 1 nm.

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