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New Membrane Could Be Game Changer For Fuel Cell Vehicles

The last time we caught up with 3M, the expert in all things sticky was busy at work on a federal grant to improve solar energy technologies, so it’s no surprise to find the company charging ahead on other clean tech projects. In the latest endeavor, 3M has just received a $3 million grant from the Department of Energy to develop a new fuel cell membrane that is more efficient and durable than current technology. That doesn’t necessarily mean a duct tape fuel cell is in our future, but 3M already has a track record in the fuel cell field and considerable experience in thin films under its belt.

Also getting in on the new round of funding is the Colorado School of Mines, which will also be developing a new low cost, high performance fuel cell membrane under a $1.5 million grant.

If these two R&D projects bear fruit, they are bound to heat up the battery vs. fuel cell debate, as the two platforms vie for a share of the electric vehicle market.

High Temperature Membranes For Low Cost Fuel Cells

The total of four million smackers is no chump change, given the sequester and all, so let’s take a closer look at the membrane issue and see what’s behind the grant.

The grant focuses on polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cells, also called proton exchange membrane fuel cells. The Energy Department has a handy chart breaking down the advantages and disadvantages of different types of fuel cells, and the membrane is one of the main disadvantages of PEM fuel cells.

Generally, PEM membranes can withstand temperatures up to the range of 60 to 80 degrees centigrade, which is an obstacle to at least two “energy benefits” that the Energy Department has its eye on. One is the potential for using smaller heat exchangers under higher operating temperatures. The other is that higher-temperature fuel cells can tolerate impurities like carbon monoxide more effectively (CO contamination is a problem for other types of fuel cells, too).

3M is a member of the Energy Department’s High Temperature Membrane Working Group, which has set goals for developing more durable membranes that help reduce the overall cost of fuel cells. For vehicle fuel cells they’re looking at an operating temperature of 120 degrees Centigrade, and for stationary fuel cells the goal is 150 degrees.

3M: We Built This!

President Obama took a lot of heat from some quarters during his re-election campaign for linking the success of the US business sector to taxpayer dollars from you and me, but when you look under the rug that’s exactly what you see, and 3M is a good example.

We took note of 3M’s government clean tech partnerships back in 2010, when the company announced a $7.33 million renewable energy project with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, focusing on low cost solar tech.

In its press materials 3M gave a pointed shout-out to the advantage of having a taxpayer-funded research facility at its disposal, with company VP Mike Roman noting that “NREL has pilot plant capabilities, which allow valuable application testing (3M is also involved the ambitious Desertec solar power project in Egypt, but that’s a whole ‘nother story).

Back in 2011, 3M rolled out (haha sorry couldn’t resist) a new “solar tape” called Ultra Barrier Solar Film, which is lightweight, moisture-resistant film that can replace the glass in conventional solar panels. The technology was developed with a grant from the Department of Energy’s Sunshot program.

3M also walks the walk when it comes to clean tech. The company adopted a pollution prevention/energy conservation business strategy decades ago and estimates its savings in the billion-dollar range, to say nothing of reduced emissions (the company is featured in a book on sustainable business and you can check our sister site Planetsave for a free download).

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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