Fuel cell technology, which was first used in space craft in the 1960s and 70s, is now ready to take to the road, with Hyundai having introduced the first production fuel cell-powered vehicle.
One of the main challenges with the adoption of fuel cells for cars hydrogen is safety issues when used in automobiles.
Neah Power Systems, a developer of innovative, efficient and safe power solutions for the military, transportation, and portable electronics applications, believes it has the solution to this problem. The company has a patent-pending technology that enables the use of formic acid for automotive applications without the associated costs of a dedicated hydrogen generation plant or the safety and handling issues associated with the use of compressed hydrogen. According to a white paper from Neah Power, fuel cells are considered one of the cleanest methods of converting fuel into electricity with little, if any, global warming byproducts. Cars will fuel cells are more green than electric vehicles since EVs just move the source of greenhouse gas emission to the electricity generation units. An additional advantage of fuel cells is that they are nearly instantly rechargeable as opposed to traditional batteries. Critical mass will be created through initiatives such as the state of California. Its’ goal for 2050 is for 87% of all cars sold in the state be electric or fuel celled. According to one plan, the majority of those vehicles would be powered by hydrogen fuel cells.
Automotive Industries (AI) asked Chris D’Couto President and Chief Executive Officer, Neah Power Systems and David Schmidt, Board Member and Chief Financial Officer, whether fuel cell-powered cars will become a reality.
D’Couto: Climate change is one of the defining issues of our generation, and will be our legacy for generations to come. Low/no emission cars are one element of addressing that challenge. Fuel cells will definitely play a role in the future of transportation. I am referring to all types of fuel cells – not just Neah Power Systems offerings. A pure play solution – such as purely a battery powered solution or purely a fuel cell solution – presents a number of technological, integration and market adoption challenges. I believe that the winning solution will be a combination of multiple integrated technologies to provide the energy necessary to power a vehicle. The fundamental difference between a fuel cell and a battery is that a fuel cell is an energy generation device whereas a battery is an energy storage device. A battery discharges over a period of time until it needs to be recharged. Rapid recharging of a battery often causes serious complications and as a result recharging a battery is a prolonged process. By contrast a fuel cell generates electricity immediately in the presence of its reactants. Once the formic acid replenished, the Neah Power Systems Forima fuel cell generates electricity instantly. As a result there is no protracted recharging or refueling time issue.
AI: How is your company providing a solution to challenges such as safety and reliability of hydrogen fuelled cars?
D’Couto: Simply put, if there were a spill, one would mop it up. Formic acid is considered a Class 8 corrosive liquid by DOT transportation standards. The lowest known value for auto-ignition spontaneous combustion is 1002.2°F (539°C). In the presence of an open flame formic acid is combustible at 156.2°F (69°C). At 85% it is considered non-flammable. Formic acid is not considered a marine pollutant and readily decomposes into its constituents which are less toxic then the product itself. The recommendations for a small spill of formic acid are to dilute with water and mop up, or absorb with an inert dry material and place in an appropriate waste disposal container. If necessary neutralize the residue with a dilute solution of sodium carbonate. As far as reliability is concerned, fuel cells are considered the most efficient form of conversion of a liquid reactant to energy density. Mind you, this is not a combustion process. This is a catalytic reaction. In the case of Neah Power Systems Direct Methanol Silicon Based Fuel Cell, which is designed for defense and space applications, the company has demonstrated more than 2,000 hours of continuous operation with less than a 4% reduction in power. With regard to the automotive sector and Neah’s Formic Acid Fuel Cell, drivers of electric vehicles commonly suffer from range anxiety. While an electric vehicle may go 200 or 250 miles without a charge a combination of fuel cell and fuel together with a balance of system could travel 500 or even 800 miles depending upon the requirements and design.
AI: How does formic acid compare to compressed hydrogen as fuel for automotive applications?
Schmidt: Fuel cells need hydrogen for the catalytic reaction in order to generate electricity. As such, the hydrogen needs to come from somewhere-whether that is pure compressed hydrogen gas, methanol, hydrogen peroxide, or otherwise. On site, on demand generation of hydrogen at point of use, as in the case of Neah Power Systems Formira formic acid fuel cell specifically eliminates any issues of storing, carrying and transporting high pressure compressed hydrogen gas cylinders.
AI: Do you think other states will follow in California’s footsteps in pushing for 87% clean fuelled cars by 2050?
Schmidt: I think that adoption of clean efficient energy solutions is very important to the future. I also think that while this is a laudable goal and we can make tremendous strides, there are many impediments to make that specific goal attainable. California has been the leader in a variety of areas – from emission standards for cars to lead content in paints, toys, etc., which were then adopted by other states. We believe that will be the case with clean fuelled cars as well. While they would lead the trajectory of early adoption, laggards then tend to benefit from that learning cycle and follow that trajectory. For convergence, it will take a concerted effort on behalf of the inventors, the technologists, integrators, industry, policy and politics, consumers, behavior, and the status quo to make that a reality.
AI: What are some of the impediments to making this vision a reality?
D’Couto: Today there is no consumer transportation-oriented ubiquitous hydrogen storage and refueling station network. There is also no network of rapid charge broad spectrum plug in electric vehicle charging systems. However, there is a global supply chain, storage and distribution network for dispensing multiple types of liquids into automobiles. Adding to or repurposing the existing infrastructure to dispense a different type of liquid is an excellent way to guarantee no disruption in consumer behavior. Once the fuel is depleted, it is simply a matter of re-filling the tank with formic acid. We are already in preliminary discussions with a fuel cell company to license the technology for certain grid scale applications, and we are identifying appropriate automotive partners for this technology, opening up new Served Available Markets (SAM) that are very significant.
AI: What role do you hope your company will play in such a future scenario?
Schmidt: The value proposition that Neah Power offers is a technological product solution offering higher energy densities and lower costs. It is a safe and effective solution that eliminates range and power issues associated with electric vehicles. Neah Power can be the enabler to allow electric hybrid vehicles to go mainstream.