For decades, ever since fuel cells provided electricity to the Apollo spacecraft, their design and manufacture has been a niche business''one in which small startups or somewhat obscure divisions of big companies made the electrochemical devices and most of their ingredients in-house, almost by hand. But on Wednesday, May 6, the German chemicals company BASF cut the ribbon at a new plant in New Jersey where it will make the key components used in high-temperature methanol fuel cells, without actually making or selling fuel cells as such.
The event highlights a significant new trend in fuel cells. ''In the last several years, most fuel cell companies have stopped trying to do everything in-house, and we''re now seeing competitors offering critical components like membranes and bipolar plates,'' says Robert Rose, executive director of the U.S. Fuel Cell Council. It''s a development that promises to bring down costs sharply and make fuel cells more than just a niche technology.
At the new little factory in Somerset, N.J., just south of New Brunswick, BASF will take its patented Celtec membrane, and sandwich it''cut into rectangles of various sizes to match different applications''with similar-sized cathode and anode elements, to make what it calls its membrane electrode assembly, or MEA. In the fuel cell process, which is rather like reverse electrolysis, when hydrogen (culled from a feedstock like methanol) is introduced at the anode, its protons are lured across the membrane; its electrons take a separate route, forming the current that is the cell''s raison d''etre. At the cathode, the hydrogen ions meet up with oxygen to yield water as a byproduct.
BASF claims to have patented procedures for making several of the MEA elements and says the Celtec membrane is uniquely tolerant of high temperatures. Therefore, any fuel cell made with an MEA can be air-cooled without need for water, which eliminates the need for humidifiers, pumps, tanks, valves, and cleaning systems. The basic feedstock is typically methanol in a water solution, essentially the same as the car washer fluid used in wintertime, but with a higher methanol fraction.
Andreas Kreimeyer, BASF''s research director, said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony that mass production of MEAs can bring down fuel cell costs by 40 or even 50 percent. To lend his words credence, the companies PlugPower and Ultracell mounted small exhibits. PlugPower, having had a difficult history in the residential market, recently has got a new lease on life putting its GenDrive fuel cells into forklifts''an application that has its own little line-item appropriation in the federal stimulus bill. Ultracell is one of several companies making a relatively light-weight powerpack for use by soldiers out in the field.
BASF''s New Jersey plant will be able to make anywhere from hundreds of thousands to millions of MEAs per year, said Horst Tore Land, CEO of BASF Fuel Cell Inc. Since 2006-7, when BASF acquired two companies with fuel cell expertise, it has invested about 100 million euros in the technology overall and about 10 million dollars in the New Jersey facility, which also got support from the U.S. energy department, the state of New Jersey, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. BASF operates a similar plant in Frankfurt, Germany, and you don''t need a lot of smart money to bet that it will soon build one in East Asia as well, though it declines to comment on that prospect.
As New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine said at the ceremony, ''This is the kind of growth that has legs.'' Though the Somerset plant only employs about 40 people, it may attract makers of fuel cells to the area, and that in turn could bring in companies manufacturing products that rely on the cells. Corzine, who has a background in investment banking, didn''t just stop by to have his picture taken and say a few words. He stayed for the whole morning, took a tour of the MEA assembly hall, and asked a lot of good questions.