Car manufacturers expect to see new interest in hydrogen fuel cells

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A man prepares to refuel a 2012 Hyundai Tucson fuel-cell vehicle. (Hyundai Motor America photo)

SAN ANTONIO (Feb. 2, 1 p.m. ET) — Plug-in electric cars and hybrids may be getting most of the attention now, but carmakers say they still are investing in future car developments that could use another technology that has been on the automotive back burner for years.

“Hydrogen fuel cells are being talked about for the near future,” Hyundai Motor Co.’s North American leader John Krafcik said during the North American International Auto Show.

And many plastics companies are also continuing research that will ensure composites will be at the center of that fuel-cell technology.

Bac2 Ltd. of Romsey, England, has developed a phenolic production system that would better allow molders to use thermosets in high-volume production of bipolar plates and other key components of fuel-cell stacks, said Graham Murray, chief technology officer and founder of Bac2, during the Society of Plastics Engineers Thermoset TopCon conference Jan. 24 in San Antonio.

Fuel-cell systems generate power from hydrogen passing through polymer membranes sandwiched between two plates that could be made of metal, thermoset plastics or thermoplastics, although metal is the current leading material.

The auto industry is interested in fuel cells because the systems drastically reduce pollution — the only emissions are water vapors — and they could allow hydrogen filling tanks to be placed at existing gasoline and diesel fuel­ing stations, reducing the infrastructure questions brought up by all-electric cars and charging stations.

Fuel cells received a lot of attention 10 years ago, with declarations that fuel-cell-powered cars would make it into consumer hands soon. General Motors Co. introduced a series of concepts, including the five-passenger Sequel sedan.

News announcements on the technology had been mostly quiet beyond occasional notices about continued investments and test fleets typically centered in California. The past two years, though, have seen buzz beginning to build again.

Newly passed rules by the influential California Air Resource Board requiring that 15.4 percent of all vehicles sold in California in 2025 be zero-emission vehicles also are influencing interest. The only ways to meet those standards are through electric cars, fuel cells or plug-in hybrids.

In addition to plastics in the fuel-cell stack, plastics would be used in various components in the electric motor powered by fuel cells and in hydrogen storage tanks.

Last year, Toyota City, Japan-based Toyota Motor Co. and Tokyo-based Honda Motor Co. Ltd. both touted the opening of the first North American hydrogen fueling station, by gasoline supplier Shell, which tapped into an industrial hydrogen pipeline in Torrance, Calif. Honda began leasing its Clarity fuel-cell vehicle to consumers in a test program in 2010.

At the Detroit auto show in January, Krafcik said Hyundai has a fuel-cell test fleet of its Tucson small sport utility vehicle. The firm has announced it will make a “limited supply” of fuel-cell Tucsons for the market in 2012 and begin mass production in 2015.

That comes back to the need for a supply base to begin large-scale production of fuel-cell components, Murray noted.

To compete for a role in fuel-cell stacks, flame-retardant plastics must meet technical and manufacturing goals. Catalysts typically used in phenolic resins for sheet molding compounds and bulk molding compounds must be molded within three to four hours. Bac2 developed a stable catalyst with a storage life of up to 12 months, allowing for the steadier production process required for high-volume molding.

“We need a more stable phenolic base,” Murray said.

He predicted that more developments from the auto industry and plastics manufacturers will bring more demand for thermosets in a rising fuel-cell infrastructure.