DETROIT — DuPont, an established supplier of material for fuel-cell parts, and Bulk Molding Compounds Inc., the new kid on the fuel-cell block, each have high hopes for the alternative energy market and what it can mean to their businesses. Officials with those companies tackled that topic at the SAE 2000 World Congress, March 6-9 in Detroit.
Fuel cells offer a clean, efficient power source for the transportation market, which long has been dependent on internal combustion engines. Any level of acceptance could pay off for fuel-cell suppliers, since even compact cars each would require 100 fuel cells.
Fuel cells convert hydrogen fuel into electricity through proton exchange membranes, many of which use DuPont's Nafion-brand perfluorinated polymers and films.
Many bipolar plates, which are used to generate electricity within fuel cells, are made with DuPont's fluoropolymers and liquid crystal polymers, while the Wilmington, Del.-based company also provides nylon, acetal, PET and polybutylene terephthalate used in fuel-cell housings and peripheral parts.
Although DuPont is researching additional materials for use in fuel cells, Nafion remains "the dominant material" for proton exchange, which generates electricity in the process, according to Dennis Curtin, a technology associate with DuPont Fluoroproducts in Fayetteville, N.C.
Carl Sullivan, high-temperature nylon product manager with DuPont Automotive in Troy, Mich., described the proton exchange systems using Nafion as "the heart of the fuel cell."
"Proton transfers are like the pistons and spark plugs in a standard engine," Sullivan said.
Nafion, which is maufactured in Fayetteville, already is being used in fuel cells powering buses in Chicago, Washington and Vancouver. The material was first developed in the 1960s for use with the U.S. space program. Its primary use in recent years has been in chlor-alkali production to produce chlorine and caustic soda.
A recent industry report predicted that at least 10,000 cars would be running exclusively on fuel cells by 2003, Sullivan said.
In bipolar plates, DuPont's Teflon-brand fluoropolymers and liquid crystal polymers have gained acceptance because they can be injection molded and recycled, and because they offer good chemical stability and electrical conductivity, Curtin added.
BMC Inc., a thermoset compound maker based in West Chicago, Ill., hopes to grab a piece of the bipolar plate segment of the fuel-cell market with a line of vinyl ester-based compounds.
The company began its fuel-cell program in early 1999 and expects to have its first application commercialized later this year, according to automotive market development manager Wilbert Conner.
BMC also is working to establish pilot programs with several fuel-cell manufacturers.
"Bipolar plates are the most expensive part of the fuel cell, and using our material can take some of the cost out of it," Conner said. "That's incentive enough for a lot of people to take interest in it.
"We can allow costs to come down to the point where it can accelerate the use of fuel cells in the market," he added. "That's really the most important thing."
Conner, who is based in BMC's sales office in Southfield, Mich., estimated that BMC could provide savings of more than 50 percent over competing materials.
BMC produces vinyl esters in West Chicago using a proprietary additive package designed especially for the fuel-cell market. Other BMC vinyl esters are used in valve covers and body parts.