Arkema and the Race to Develop Clean Energy
How It Works
Four Major Market Players
Thanks to strides in recent years, hydrogen fuel cells are a promising alternative energy for at least three major applications: power supply for portable equipment, local power generation for individual or institutional use, and automotive transportation.
Both solid oxide and proton exchange membrane fuel cells continuously convert a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen into electricity, through an electrochemical reaction whose sole byproduct is water. The main attraction of these systems are the many potential sources of hydrogen production, which include hydrocarbon reforming, gas synthesized from biomass, coal or residual fuel oil, and water electrolysis using electricity generated from wind, hydro and nuclear power or fossil fuel-powered plants. In the short term, the technology is expected to spread fastest in the field of portable applications, followed by small- and medium-power stationary installations.
How It Works
Hydrogen atoms in fuel cells split into electrons and protons when they come into contact with a platinum catalyst at the anode. The protons pass through the membrane and come together again at the cathode. The electron imbalance creates a positive and a negative pole between which the electrons circulate. Attracted by the positive terminal, they bypass the filter and generate electrical current. Protons and electrons come together again on the cathode side, combining with the oxygen in the air to produce water vapor.
Solid oxide fuel cells (SOFC), which have operating temperatures of over 700°C, and proton exchange membrane fuel cells (PEMFC), which operate at about 80°C, are the primary technologies in use. PEMFC membrane cells consist of conductive bipolar plates and electrodes, separated by an electrolyte—a polymer membrane—that allows the proton formed as a result of hydrogen splitting to pass through. The fuel cell is part of a complex system that supplies it with high-purity hydrogen and pressurized clean air, converts the current produced by the cell, adapts it to required specifications, and manages the heat produced and variations in power and charge.
Given their projected efficiency, the reliability and quality of the current they produce and the fact that they are emission-free and quiet, fuel cells are being considered for use in the following applications::
Powering of portable and communication devices (phones and laptops).
Stationary power supply for homes and apartment buildings, and public, manufacturing and isolated facilities. Fuel cells are suitable for cogeneration—the heat they give off can be used directly for heating or converted into electricity via a turbine.
Transportation: Electric motive power for mass transit and cars, and power supply for onboard peripheral equipment such as air conditioning, by developing auxiliary power units to give vehicles a secondary, self-sustaining source of electric power.
Four Major Market Players
Chemical manufacturers are developing materials for the core components of fuel cells, such as membranes and bipolar plates. Automakers and their equipment suppliers are working to optimize the cell system and its auxiliary equipment, make them smaller and reduce costs. The oil industry is developing and testing fuel options. And power and gas utilities and heating equipment companies are assessing the potential of fuel cells, and in some cases their associated fuels (hydrogen and natural gas), in the stationary market.
Membranes are a key component of PEMFC fuel cells. Arkema is counting on its experience as a polymer specialist and focusing its research on its Kynar® fluoropolymer to tap a high- value-added market with major potential. A wide array of research programs are being conducted on PEMFC fuel cells to enhance their performance and lower their cost. Solutions often require the development of new polymer membranes, which consist of a thin, solid organic compound with the consistency of a plastic film—typically equivalent in thickness to two to seven sheets of paper (between 50 and 200 µm). It must remain saturated with water so that the particles can move around. The membrane’s ionic conductivity depends on operating temperature and pressure.