The University Record, March 12, 2001

Partnership focuses on smaller, more cost-effective catalyst for fuel cells

By Pat Majher
College of Engineering

If chemical engineering Prof. Levi Thompson and his corporate partners are successful, high-performance proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel-cell-based power supplies may soon be available to replace batteries in applications ranging from cars and military vehicles to cellular phones and personal digital assistants.

As their immediate goal, Thompson and his collaborators are working to develop catalysts that would significantly reduce the size, weight and cost of fuel processors, which are essential components for the conversion of hydrocarbons such as gasoline into hydrogen for PEM fuel cells.

The project began less than two years ago, when Thompson’s research team conducted a feasibility study funded by the Cooperative Automotive Research for Advanced Technology Program of the

U. S. Department of Energy. They successfully demonstrated new catalyst formulations that were competitive with current commercial fuel-processing catalysts. During the second phase of the project, Thompson will team with several corporate partners to produce a fuel processor based on these new catalysts. Including support from the Department of Energy and current cost-sharing commitments, funding for the three-year Phase II project will exceed $1 million.

Fuel cell and fuel processor designs present a number of unusual and difficult challenges to engineers and manufacturers. Gasoline or diesel fuels are favored for many prospective commercial applications. This is problematic, since fuel cells are far more efficient at burning hydrogen than the hydrocarbons that comprise gasoline. Fuel processors are used to convert hydrocarbons into hydrogen-rich fuel for the PEM fuel cell. A component known as the water gas shift (WGS) reactor contributes to the production of hydrogen and, more importantly, removes most of the carbon monoxide generated as a byproduct of other fuel-processing reactions. Carbon monoxide can seriously impede the performance of PEM fuel cells.

The WGS reactor is the single largest component in most fuel processors, accounting for one-third of the total mass, volume and cost. By reducing the reactor’s size as much as 50 percent, Thompson and his partners hope to achieve a substantial reduction in the entire system, thereby making fuel cells a practical and affordable alternative to conventional batteries in a wide range of applications. In the interest of offering a further advantage to manufacturers, the group hopes to create a high-performance catalyst that also can tolerate sulfur, a major component of gasoline, which subverts the operation of conventional catalysts in fuel processors.

Thompson says that a number of major companies are betting fuel cells will replace batteries and other kinds of power supplies for a variety of applications. “It’s a very large emerging market,” he notes. “Our success in producing a highly efficient and cost-effective WGS catalyst is going to have a major impact on industry’s ability to manufacture small, inexpensive, fuel-cell-based power supplies. Some have called this an enabling technology. If that is true, and if we manage to address some of the key challenges, a number of very important commercial opportunities will open up, and our partners will be able to lead the charge.”

In addition to Thompson, who is project director, partners and co-investigators in this venture are Jon Wagner of Süd Chemie (formerly United Catalyst Inc.), Christopher Papile of Catalyte LLC, and Purnesh Seegopaul of Union Miniere Research, a division of Union Miniere USA Inc. The College of Engineering’s Office of Technology Transfer and Commercialization also will participate by providing assistance with marketing and licensing of the technology.