Celanese AG is boosting its business in fuel cells, opening a pilot plant to produce polymer membranes and preparing for a full production line.
The 5 million euro ($4.9 million) pilot line in Frankfurt, Germany, debuted Sept. 3 and will make complete membrane electrode assemblies - or MEAs - for fuel cells using Celanese's polybenzimidazole as the center layer.
A full MEA consists of the polymer, catalysts and a gas diffusion layer to create the central working part of a proton exchange membrane fuel cell, the site where the chemical reaction takes place between hydrogen and oxygen to create electricity.
The major polymer now in use is DuPont's Nafion perfluorinated membrane.
The Celanese PBI, produced in Rock Hill, S.C., can operate at a higher temperature than Nafion, which Celanese claims allows more flexibility for fuel-cell developers, said Celanese spokesman Carsten Henschel. It primarily is marketed for use in firefighters' protective gear.
A higher temperature can be beneficial, said Bob Rose, executive director of Washington-based U.S. Fuel Cell Council. Those MEAs generally are more durable, more tolerant to carbon monoxide in the cell stack and are better at managing a gas fuel system, rather than requiring a liquid base. More alternative membrane technologies are in the pipeline, he added.
Until now Celanese has made the units solely in the lab, Henschel said. ``This pilot plant is an important step to providing the MEAs in a significant number and with more reliability,'' he said.
Celanese expects the first commercial applications to go into stationary power facilities, such as the one that powers its plant. Automakers are making more headlines with their research, but likely are years behind full applications of fuel-cell systems in vehicles.
As demand increases, the company will look to the pilot line to determine the best manufacturing techniques. The firm also is increasing its development team. About 30 people are assigned to the fuel-cell program now, with another 70 in PBI production in the United States.