Formic acid fuel cell gets boost

BASF, Ludwigshafen, Germany, and Tekion, Burnaby, B.C., have agreed to work together to develop and commercialize Tekion’s fuel cell technology. Collaboration began in late February, notes Malcolm Man, director of programs and strategic planning for Tekion.

Tekion’s cell uses formic acid as fuel, and BASF is the world’s largest producer of the acid. The catalyst used in the fuel cell is sensitive to poisons, and the two companies will jointly develop a special high-purity formic acid and additives formulation, notes Man. BASF’s knowledge of material compatibility with formic acid also will be tapped in the selection of materials for the fuel cell and its replaceable fuel packs, he adds. Because the power packs will be used in consumer devices and so must be certified as safe, the two companies also will collaborate to develop appropriate codes and standards for safety certification.

Tekion hold the exclusive license to formic-acid fuel cell technology from the University of Illinois, Champaign, Ill. The company now is focusing on developing a miniature hybrid battery/fuel-cell unit called the Formira Power Pack and hopes to introduce the packs in the fourth quarter of 2007, says Man. They are aimed at high-power mobile electronic devices such as laptop computers and satellite telephones requiring power of up to 50 watts and the energy of up to 100 watt-hours.

The Power Packs rely on the fuel cell, instead of a conventional electrical source like a wall outlet, to recharge the batteries, which initially will be lithium-ion ones, Man notes. When the fuel is exhausted, he explains, users simply replace the empty fuel cartridge with a fresh one. Because of the high power density of the fuel cell, it should provide about double the time between charges, he says.

Man reckons that the Power Packs should be competitive — probably around 10% to 15% more expensive than conventional rechargeable units — which he calls a reasonable premium considering the freedom from the electrical grid that they offer.

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