From: Matt Nauman, San Jose Mercury News, Calif.
Published October 5, 2004 12:00 AM

Mountain View, Calif., Firm Closes in on Hydrogen-Car Technology

Oct. 5—A Silicon Valley company will announce a new fuel-cell technology today that it says could lead to cheaper hydrogen-powered cars sooner than expected.


PolyFuel of Mountain View said it used nanotechnology to develop a new membrane material for use in the transformation of hydrogen to electricity that is cheaper, more durable, and better suited for the cold starts and hard drives that a car must endure.


"The membrane is the heart of the fuel cell," said Jim Balcom, PolyFuel's president and chief executive. "The membrane converts fuel and air directly into electricity." Previously, he said, fuel-cell membranes have relied on a technology based on DuPont's Teflon that was developed for the Gemini space program in the 1960s.


"There really has been a lot of improvement since then," he said.


"What we've come up with is a real breakthrough." Here's how the fuel-cell technology works: Hydrogen enters the fuel cell, where it is separated into an electron and a hydrogen ion. The ion passes through the membrane, combining with oxygen on the other side to make water. The electrons can't pass through the membrane, so they leave as an electric current that can power a motor.


Their hydrocarbon polymer membrane "looks remarkably simple. It looks like a heavy sheet of food-wrap plastic," Balcom said.


Billions of dollars are being spent on fuel-cell research and significant hurdles — including a lack of service stations that sell hydrogen and questions about on-board fuel storage — remain before commercial development is possible, Balcom said. Large volumes of commercial fuel-cell vehicles won't come until 2013 to 2015, he said.


In fuel-cell vehicles, hydrogen is used to create electricity with only air and water as byproducts. Many, including rivals such as Toyota President Fujio Cho and Ford Motor Chairman Bill Ford Jr., have identified hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles as the ultimate replacement for the gasoline-burning internal combustion engine.


Some vehicles are being tested now, including some at the California Fuel-Cell Partnership in West Sacramento. PolyFuel's membrane is being lab-tested, Balcom said, but has yet to be tried in a moving car.


PolyFuel was spun out from SRI four years ago. It has raised $40 million from venture capital firms — some in Silicon Valley, some in Asia and some specializing in fuel-cell and other energy technologies.


Last year, PolyFuel said it was testing a direct methanol fuel cell to be used in mobile electronic devices.


To see more of the San Jose Mercury News, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.mercurynews.com. (c) 2004, San Jose Mercury News, Calif. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.


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