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Fuel Cell Component Manufacturer Discusses Status and Future of Fuel Cell Industry

Issue 4 and Volume 107.

Steve Blankinship,
Associate Editor

Power Engineering recently interviewed John Goodman, fuel cell market president of precision manufacturing concern Entegris. Entegris has just announced the opening of a new manufacturing facility in Chaska, Minnesota that will produce critical fuel cell components in higher volumes at a lower cost than have previously been available.

Power Engineering: What exactly will Entegris be making at its new plant?

Goodman: We will make compression-molded bipolar and monopolar plates for fuel cell applications that will be used by major fuel cell developers throughout the U.S., Japan and Europe. The plates can be utilized for all portable, stationary and transportation fuel cell stack needs. We also provide fluid handling components, assemblies and service for balance-of-plant applications to the fuel cell industry.

Power Engineering: Does the fact that companies such as yours are now making fuel cell components signal a step toward commercial fuel cell applications?

Goodman: We hope we are one of the companies that will help elevate the status of fuel cells toward commercialization. We are very good at building prototypes but we also have plants around the world that are focused on volume manufacturing. So we can take those things that we’re helping the fuel cell developers to prototype today and produce them in high volume at low cost in the future which is really what the industry needs to get fuel cells and other alternative energy technologies out into our daily life. What we’re doing is at least dealing with one of the ‘chicken or the egg’ problems, specifically, that no one wants to build a production plant for volume until there’s volume. We’re trying to get ahead of that because we can produce plates in high volume at low cost today.

Power Engineering: How do you see commercialized fuel cell deployment happening?

Goodman: The first thing we will see is what we call ‘portable,’ consisting of micro-devices that you might use on your PC or cell phone or PDA that will probably be powered by direct methanol. All the players such as Casio, Toshiba and Sony are working on these portable fuel cell systems simply because you can have a very small direct methanol fuel cell in your laptop and run it for ten hours so you can take that flight to Europe and watch a movie the whole way and if you run out you can plug another cartridge in that’s the size of a cigarette lighter and you have another 10 hours to go. I think these will be the first products to get into consumers’ and businesses’ hands. We think these systems are going to start to reach market applications before the end of this calendar year and over the next couple of years.

Power Engineering: What next?

Goodman: There is another part of the portable segment that is the slightly larger unit – say 25 to 100 watt systems – graphic display boards and railway/traffic signs. These are things that you can retrieve from time to time and refuel. In working with our customers, we believe that such devices aren’t too far off in the future because they’re not expected to last 5,000 hours like a car or 40,000 hours like a home energy system. I think we are getting close from a cost and reliability situation where we will start to see these things develop.

Power Engineering: What about stationary power applications?

Goodman: We think that stationary power will be the next segment to mature and it’s going to come in a couple different forms. First you’ll see premium power adopters, things like uninterruptible power supplies. There are a number of companies we are working with where you can have a bottle of hydrogen present because the system is only going to operate on an as-needed basis. So once again it’s not going to need 40,000 hours of lifetime; it will need several thousand hours of lifetime. It’s only going to operate when there is a grid failure or primary system failure. Also remote power supply where people are off in the woods and have been relying on liquid propane systems. They are willing to pay quite a bit more for a kilowatt-hour than other people. And we think that’s going to start rolling out in mid to late 2004. And then you’ll start to see stationary power in the 2005 to 2006 timeframe – the systems like Plug Power is working on to put in your home where you co-generate heat and power.

Power Engineering: We hear a lot about the various technologies being developed for stationary fuel cell power applications. Which ones are going to be adopted for which applications?

Goodman: I think the kinds of technologies that will be employed will depend on the amount of power people want. So PEM – polymer electrolyte membrane systems – will be used for the smaller power applications, for things like single family and multifamily homes. This is for systems that might go up to 50 or 100 kW because they start up quickly, they run on reformed natural gas so you can install it in your home and operate it.

The larger applications like subsystems or distributed power generation placed in a neighborhood will probably utilize higher temperature systems like molten carbonate and solid oxide fuel cells (SOFC) because they are more efficient in generating higher amounts of power and you don’t have start-up issues because they have to get up to temperature to work. So you won’t see them in homes but you will see them in power plant applications on a distributed generation type of basis. Our perspective is that you’ll probably see adoption in Japan and Europe before the U.S. because their cost per kilowatt is much higher than what we pay here in the U.S. – 7 cent/kW compared in four or five times that in Japan. We actually have a full-time fuel cell team in Japan. In Europe it will be driven by economics as well as a much more enlightened emphasis on the environment.