NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology

A new type of fuel cell powered by a water-methanol mixture and air -- being developed under a federal laboratory-industry partnership -- could lead to a $50 billion a year industry and create 500,000 new jobs by the year 2002.

The fuel cell, developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, could be the best choice to power zero-emission vehicles, homes, commercial facilities and light industry, according to industrial partner DTI Technologies, Inc., of Los Angeles.

The company projected the market for fuel cells alone to be more than $8 billion a year by 2002 and the systems which will operate off the fuel cell will become a $50 billion a year industry. The fuel cells could give energy efficient, nonpolluting hybrid electric vehicles an edge on the marketplace of environmentally safe transportation by the end of the century.

The fuel cell's simplicity as a clean energy alternative to the use of fossil fuel-powered combustion engines will have widespread appeal in the automotive industry, but the technology has many other applications, said Dr. Gerald Halpert, task manager of the fuel cell project at JPL.

Among them, these new, highly efficient fuel cells could be used to replace batteries in battlefield radios and consumer electronics, Halpert said. Additionally, they could be used to provide emergency power for situations brought about by floods, hurricanes or major earthquakes.

The technology, developed with funding from the Advanced Research Projects Agency, has been licensed by DTI Technologies Inc., of Los Angeles, and is available to prospective manufacturers.

The solid-state energy storage device, called the "direct methanol liquid-feed fuel cell," simply uses noble metal catalysts and carbon electrodes as the reaction sites on both sides of a solid polymer membrane. That configuration is similar to a battery, except that the energy is provided externally by the 3 percent methanol solution stored or flowing into the fuel chamber.

As long as the methanol solution is available, the fuel cell is always operational, unlike a battery which runs out of energy when its internal materials are depleted. Energy is provided by the small amount of methanol in water inserted into the electrode chamber. The 3 percent methanol is capable of providing a current of 50 amps continuously on a 4-bnch electrode.

The direct methanol liquid feed fuel cell system has numerous advantages over the conventional fuel cell system based on gasfeed designs, Halpert said. The cells do not need a way to vaporize fuel, nor do they require a complex humidifier. Its simplicity results in a smaller and lighter energy-producing package.

The work of JPL's Electrochemical Technologies Group within the Electric Power Section has resulted in eight new technology inventions and one major patent application, said JPL group supervisor Rao Surampudi.

This new technology is currently being considered for several Department of Defense applications, electric vehicles and emergency power systems. DTI has obtained a license from the California Institute of Technology's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for commercial use.

The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) is continuing its support with a program to develop a replacement for the battery used in Army radios, thus eliminating costly handling and disposal problems and tripling its operational time in the field. The fuel cell alternative would allow for continuous operation in the battlefield with a small addition of methanol. Giner Inc., of Waltham, Mass. and the University of Southern California are members of the ARPA team working with JPL on this technology development.

DTI is funding the development work through JPL's Technology Affiliates Office to develop a 1-kilowatt system and is planning to produce the fuel cells in production quantities through one of its sublicensees, Detroit Center Tool Inc.

The Technology Affiliates Program is designed to help U.S. companies improve their competitive positions in the global economy by transferring JPL technology into the marketplace. The seven-year-old program now includes nearly 60 companies which have generated more than 170 technologies for transfer to benefit companies and the public.

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