There is a fuel-cell technology race revving up across the globe.
The research is in full swing at development centers, on test tracks and in mold shops.
What's up for grabs is a market with a total value projected to reach $10 billion by the end of this decade and likely to grow exponentially from there.
For plastics suppliers, the key to hooking into that market is ensuring that polymers will form a base of the fuel cell itself, and become a major player in the fuel-cell market.
"It's a technology that is a big priority for us, because we see a big future for it," said Joe Carfora, vice president of business development for Bulk Molding Compounds Inc. "The volume potential is just huge."
Fuel cells are not a new concept. The first were developed in the mid-19th century. Cells are based on a fairly simple idea: Combine hydrogen and oxygen and capture the energy released when the two elements form water.
The hydrogen can come from a variety of sources — either pure hydrogen or material drawn from more conventional fuel sources, such as gasoline, propane or natural gas.
Unlike an internal-combustion engine, the cells have no moving parts, so they are quiet. Water is the only emission.
But fuel cells have not been used commercially on any large scale; the major use to this point has been in the space program.
Now with the push to find a more eco-friendly energy-generation system, researchers at universities, state and federal governments, automakers, utility companies and a range of private industries are looking into ways to bring fuel-cell technology into wide use.
Plastics suppliers are racing to show that they can provide the best materials for those cells.
"We believe that the global requirements for energy are increasing, and there is a strong desire for clean and convenient energy alternatives," said Richard Okine, business manager for DuPont's new $50 million fuel-cell technology center.
"We believe fuel cells can and probably will help meet those needs in a variety of markets. Of course, we don't have a crystal ball to tell us how quickly fuel-cell technology will develop, in which markets it will develop most quickly and whether it will prove to be a profitable industry for those who choose to play."
DuPont already makes one key part for one type of fuel cell, the proton exchange membrane — or PEM. The interaction between the hydrogen and oxygen takes place through a conductive polymer, such as the Wilmington, Del.-based firm's Nafion perfluorinated membrane.
Completing the cell is a set of bipolar plates on either side of the PEM membrane. It is those plates that suppliers, including DuPont and BMC, are targeting for an extensive use of plastics. BMC has developed a thermoset compound that can be used instead of metal in the plates, while DuPont is looking at various thermoplastics to find an appropriate material.
West Chicago, Ill.-based BMC replaced the inert material in its vinyl ester compound with a graphite filler to come up with a material that can be compression molded to meet the specifications of the cell — including the finely engineered grooves on each plate needed to make chemicals flow through the cell.
An automotive fuel-cell package is about the size of a suitcase and made up of 400 individual bipolar plates, or 180 pounds of a thermoset material. Even if fuel cells capture only 10 percent of the North American auto market, BMC could sell 200 million pounds of its compound annually. That is nearly double its existing sales, Carfora said.
"Automotive is the Holy Grail," said Wilbert Conner, manager of BMC's fuel-cell market development, based at the company's office in Southfield, Mich.
DuPont, meanwhile, is focusing on finding a polymer that can be injection molded to create the plate, Okine said.
"There are a variety of polymers that DuPont has that are being looked at and used in a design," he said. "In using plastics, the idea is to reduce the cost. You want to have materials that lend themselves to high-volume production.
"If you can go to a thermoplastic material, you can injection mold plates and reduce your overall costs."
For its part, BMC is moving ahead with ways to produce a thinner thermoset plate and one that will come in at about $2, down from the typical $5-$10 cost per plate.
BMC also is researching an injection moldable version of its compound. The company has a massive head start over thermoplastic alternatives, Conner said.
"This is one area where we're going to be ahead of the curve," he said.
There are advantages to both composite and metal plates, said Jim Zizelman, chief engineer for Delphi Automotive System advanced engine management systems and fuel cells. A metal plate is less expensive at this point, but composite plates offer lower production costs.
Troy, Mich.-based Delphi is producing both types of plates for development programs — depending on what the buyers want.
"We have customers that belong strongly in the metallic camp and customers that belong strongly in the composite camp," he said.
Beyond the PEM programs, Delphi also has teamed with automaker BMW AG to develop a solid oxide fuel cell used as an auxiliary power system to help run the electronics on vehicles.
The oxide cell can run on a gasoline mixture better than a PEM system, but operates at a much higher temperature — 1262§-1472§ F compared with 146§ F for a PEM.
The higher temperatures are too hot for plastics, so Delphi uses a combination of metal and ceramics in the cell. A thin ceramic sheet is used in the same way a polymer membrane is used in a PEM fuel cell, Zizelman said.
While the fuel-cell-powered car has been getting plenty of attention, it actually is years behind in development compared with products set for home or office work.
The first commercial application of a PEM fuel-cell program will head out to consumers this year, with a generator fueled by a Ballard Power Systems cell. The product is aimed at consumers who can use it as a backup system for their home, at a campsite or even for a tailgate party.
In addition, Ballard subsidiaries have created an engineering prototype for the Japanese market of a natural-gas-fired, cogeneration power system for home use.
The continuing power crisis in California has suggested plenty of market potential, said Firoz Rasul, chief executive officer for Vancouver, British Columbia-based Ballard. Fuel-cell stacks can be connected easily to an existing natural gas infrastructure.
"The situation in California has changed the way people look at the power supply," Rasul said. "Consumers and businesses more and more are convinced they need to have more control over their power system."
Backers can take the alternative power-supply proposal into large and small applications. Large projects include replacing or supplementing power plants. Small projects could entail a cell that powers a laptop computer for weeks, or a cell phone that operates for months before the user has to replace a small vial of fuel.
Researchers at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland have developed a PEM cell the size of a stamp that provides power for remote sensors. Unlike existing stacks, the cell is printed on a thin wafer, potentially made of thermoplastic, silicone, ceramic or aluminum, said Robert Savinell, interim dean of engineering.
The wafer sits on a bed of fuel, drawing hydrogen from below and oxygen from the surrounding air. The miniature system generates only 10 milliwatts of power; by comparison, a cell phone needs 500 milliwatts. But the program can string together the tiny cells, generating enough power for hand-held gadgets, Savinell said.
"You can scale it up to a certain size," he said. "The real trick here is in reinventing the materials and how we use them."
The market for stationary and portable power systems for homes and laptops will lay the groundwork for the biggest single market leap — replacing the internal combustion engine, Okine said.
"The biggest challenges in introducing [cells] into the automotive industry are cost, performance and reliability," he said. "The reliability and durability of fuel cells need to be proven out for mass-scale applications.
"There is going to be a learning curve on the volume."
While automakers worldwide are developing fuel-cell-powered vehicles, it will be years before they hit the road in large numbers. Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford Motor Co. has a fuel-cell version of the Focus it will bring to market by 2004, but in limited numbers, said spokesman Brendon Prebo.
The Focus FCV will run on direct hydrogen. Prebo noted there is no real infrastructure for hydrogen filling stations, even if all the kinks in fuel-cell technology are ironed out.
It may take another generation of auto and fuel-cell improvements before the system makes a real breakthrough, he said.
Fuel-cell makers and suppliers will have to trim costs tenfold before the programs are a sure bet in the auto industry, Okine said.
"Everything comes down to economics," Carfora agreed. "We are not going to pay a 25 percent premium for a fuel-cell car. We're not going to pay any premium."
In addition, researchers must develop a cell that will work on reformulated gasoline or come up with an infrastructure to get alternative fuels into the marketplace to serve the new engines.
But even as the timetable to bring a fuel-cell vehicle to market stretches, the potential market grows. It is just too big a prospect to ignore, Zizelman said.
"It's clearly an exciting industry," he said. "There's a lot of promise in fuel cells, but everyone would agree there is a lot to be done."