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16 Feb 2011 10:02:55

Runcorn company leads way in fuel cells

A world-leading new fuel cell technology developed by a small business in Runcorn has been selected for a £1million investment by the Carbon Trust as part of its Polymer Fuel Cell Challenge. ACAL Energy's new approach means that for the first time, hydrogen-powered fuel cells could be affordable enough to be used in mass market applications such as cars – enabling the emergence of a global industry estimated to be worth over £180 billion by 2050.

ACAL Energy's radical solution is potentially simpler and lower cost than conventional polymer fuel cell technology, addressing the durability and cost issues that have hindered fuel cell adoption for decades. The company has developed a new way of reacting the oxygen in air with hydrogen by using a low cost liquid catalyst. Conventional polymer fuel cells require expensive platinum catalysts to do this, and the ACAL approach achieves the same performance while offering lower costs and reduced system complexity.

Detailed Carbon Trust analysis, based on a US Department of Energy model, has shown that the ACAL technology has the potential to cut system costs, once in mass production, by up to 40 per cent while potentially increasing durability.

Hydrogen-powered fuel cells can power electric cars with zero local emissions, whilst offering the range currently expected from a traditional combustion engine. ACAL's breakthrough could be key to the future of low carbon transport, making fuel cell cars both the lowest carbon vehicle available and also potentially cheaper to run than plug-in hybrids or battery-only electric vehicles.

At the heart of the groundbreaking new design is a proprietary liquid 'catholyte' system based on commodity chemicals. It is the brainchild of Andy Creeth, co-founder of ACAL Energy, who uncovered the principle working in a previous role where he developed chemical solutions for everyday uses such as detergents or personal care products.

Dr Robert Trezona, Research Accelerator director at the Carbon Trust commented: "We believe ACAL's transformational approach is one of the biggest breakthroughs in fuel cell technology since the 1980s when fuel cells moved from the space programme to industrial applications. In one step, ACAL's technology solves fundamental issues of cost and performance which the fuel cell industry has been trying to overcome for the past 20 years, in particular for automotive products, which are the most challenging applications for fuel cells.

"We are backing a British company that is taking on the world. Its step-change fuel cell technology can be produced at scale and deliver major cost reductions, which could make affordable, fuel cell cars a reality for the first time."

"The Carbon Trust's PEM Challenge program will enable us to accelerate development of our technology for use in cars", commented Dr. S.B. Cha, CEO of ACAL Energy. "While ACAL will initially offer products for use in stationary power applications, our longer-term focus remains automotive. We are very grateful for the support given to us by the Carbon Trust, not only in this program, but over the last several years. We look forward to working with the Carbon Trust to achieve our mutual goal of clean, sustainable and affordable power".

The Carbon Trust's Polymer Fuel Cell Challenge was launched in 2009 to deliver the critical reduction in fuel cell system costs that must be achieved to make mass market deployment a reality. An extensive search was undertaken to find breakthrough technology capable of reducing system costs by over a third at mass-produced scales. The project will commence in the coming weeks following completion of contracts.

ACAL Energy's application, one of 14, was put under intense scrutiny by the Carbon Trust and a leading panel of international experts with more than 100 years of combined experience in fuel cell technology.

ACAL's current near term focus – backed by venture capital investments, including the Carbon Trust's own fund – is on stationary fuel cell products. This additional investment through the Polymer Fuel Cells Challenge will allow ACAL to explore earlier-stage but potentially transformative technologies for longer-term automotive products.

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