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Fuel of the Future.

The road to commercial fuel cells is long but so tempting.


Published on November 17, 2006 in the Philadelphia Business Journal.

Three years ago, Frank Slattery and his team at Franklin Fuel Cells visited a gas station in South Philadelphia, applied gasoline directly from a pump to one of their patented, copper-ceria fuel cells and waited to see what happened.

Then they watched as the 10-centimeter cell converted that gas to energy without producing any byproducts other than water.

"That's when I knew we were really on to something," Slattery said last month, recalling the experiment.

Slattery and a group of angel investors founded Franklin Fuel Cells of Malvern in 2001 with an initial investment of around $3 million. They knew the technology was years from being commercially ready. But they thought that if the technology worked, they could reduce pollution and drastically cut energy costs worldwide.

"With this, you can do an awful lot for the environment if we're half right," Slattery said. "If you can generate electricity at a lower rate than you could using an internal combustion engine, it's a good thing."

Fuel cells are similar to batteries but they don't require recharging and they don't run down as long as fuel is applied. Cells produce energy through the electrochemical process of stripping electrons from the fuel. Using the hydrogen in the fuel as the catalyst, there is greater fuel efficiency and less pollution than in traditional internal combustion engines. There are no moving parts and the only byproduct in most fuel cells is sulfur.

"It's not just the issue of the technology," said Susan Holt of the U.S. Department of Energy. "It's the supporting elements of it that may hold it back."

First developed in 1839, most fuel cells must be paired with secondary processes that adequately treat the sulfur by products, which would otherwise clog and corrode cells. Those secondary processes have made cells larger, more expensive and not commercially practical yet.

While the sulfur in hydrocarbon fuels has caused physical and financial problems for most other fuel cell companies, Franklin Fuel Cells claims that it has developed a solid oxide cell that can handle the sulfur without going through a separate desulphurization process.

"What's unique about our technology is we can run directly on these hydrocarbon fuels," said John Law, Franklin's director, president and CEO. "We've demonstrated its capabilities on 17 different fuels such as gasoline, diesel, kerosene, JP8 and JP5 military fuels, and E85 ethanol."

Law believes that Franklin is the only fuel cell developed that can handle those fuels without having the additional costs involved in separate sulfur processing procedures.

Created from technology developed by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, the cells have been tested and now are in the process of being scaled for larger applications.

Franklin hopes to market its cells to the auxiliary generator market between 2010 and 2012. The company predicts that its cells will enter the automotive market around 2015.

"If you think about the various places where you could use a fuel cell, it's almost infinite," Slattery said. "The auxiliary truck market is a billion-dollar market; the automotive market is worth tens of billions of dollars."

Franklin is aiming first at providing auxiliary power units for long-haul trucks.

"You've got your truckers who idle their trucks at night," Law said, "and that wastes about a billion gallons of diesel every year because it is the most inefficient way to make electricity."

Then they want to enter the recreational vehicle market, followed by the marine pleasure craft market, as well as the military market.

Franklin has already received two $1 million grants from the federal government, with the most recent appropriation awarded last March.

"The military is extremely interested in our technology because of its ability to run on the logistic fuels that they have," Law said. "That is extremely difficult for any fuel cell to do but our fuel cell can run on JP8, JP5," referring to kerosene-based military fuels that contain heavy amounts of sulfur.

The space program has been using fuel cells in crafts since the 1960s and continues to rely upon them for energy and water in space shuttles.

Ultimately, Franklin wants to enter the commercial automotive market.

"That is the holy grail of fuel cells," Law said.

Fred Murphy, a Temple University Fox School of Business and Management professor, cautions that fuel cell technologies may not be commonplace for another 20 or 30 years.

"You can't really say there is a revolution under way, but there is definitely progress," he said.

President Bush acknowledged the necessity for alternative fuel technology during his 2003 State of the Union address.

"With a new national commitment, our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles to taking these cars from laboratory to showroom so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free," the president said.

He also announced a $1.2 billion hydrogen fuel initiative to reverse America's dependence on foreign oil. Bush's hydrogen fuel initiative was to include $720 million in new funding to develop the technologies and infrastructure to produce, store and distribute hydrogen for use in fuel cell vehicles and electricity generation.

"Everyone touts new technology when costs of energy run high," Murphy said.

But even if tensions in the Middle East stabilize, he said, the development of fuel cell technology will continue.

"It may fall into the background as far as the public is concerned but it will remain in the forefront as far as research and development," Murphy added. "The hope of really cheap oil just isn't a reality anymore. We have to do something."

The team at Franklin agrees. And they have raised about $10 million to date from private investors to improve their product. They are currently planning on building a new 15,000-square-foot facility where they can manufacture cells.

"I really truly believe that power generation and the energy industry is one of the most important places to be if you are an engineer," said Eduardo Paz, Franklin's director of technical programs. "It's one of the biggest challenges we have -- to find better and better ways of providing energy to all these developing economies."

Slattery said that when he made his initial investment, he knew the technology might not pay dividends -- financial or in regards to the environment -- for a long, long time.

"I may not be around to see it," said Slattery, 69. "But I've got five kids and nine grandchildren. They'll be around."