Abramovich-backed company gets EU funding to develop cheaper fuel cells

Posted on 17 Dec 2012

Fuel cell developer AFC Energy has been awarded a £1.5m grant from the European Union to fund the creation of cheaper fuel cells.

The grant will finance its project to develop alkaline fuel cells that can be fed with ammonia for three years, beginning in March 2013.

AFC Energy, which received a £8.6m investment from Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich in October, will coordinate the project and receive a £500,000 share of the project funding with the rest of the balance shared between the other project partners.

The key to the wide deployment of AFC Energy’s systems will be its ability to be used with many different energy sources.

Ian Williamson, chief executive at AFC Energy, said that the move to integrate ammonia with its fuel cells will allow it to provide “industrial power more rapidly and on a global basis.”

“It is not beholden to natural gas systems so we can go off grid with this technology,” said Mr Williamson, meaning that factories could start up in even more remote places, without the high infrastructure costs.

The EU grant will help the company get a product to market more quickly than previously planned, with South Korea likely to be its first market because of the feed-in tariffs in place, followed by Germany and America.

I know we have a grant fund for looking at this over a longer period of time but we would like to come to the marketplace with different places more rapidly than that.”

Ammonia, which is readily around the world because it comes from the chemical and fertiliser industry, has a high energy density and can be very easily converted to hydrogen, which powers AFC Energy’s fuel cells, by heating it in the presence of a catalyst – a process known as “cracking”.

AFC Energy’s alkaline fuel cell system enables the efficient use of the hydrogen liberated by cracking, giving it the potential to be more economic than other fuel cell types.

AFC Energy’s alkaline fuel cells can tolerate traces of ammonia in the fuel stream, which means that there no expensive cleanup process is required.

Ammonia fed alkaline fuel cell systems are more efficient than known current diesel alternatives and the only emissions from this process are water and nitrogen. Ammonia fuelled systems are suited for both industrial and small scale back-up and off-grid power solutions.

The Surrey-based company has acquired Diverse Energy after it fell into administration. Diverse Energy, which has a number of contracts to produce fuel cells fed with ammonia into the mobile phone mast power market in Africa.

AFC Energy hopes to use its patented technology alongside its own equipment in a move that will thousands of pounds on each system.

“They’re using the wrong fuel cell,” said Williamson. “Their fuel cells require high quality hydrogen as it cannot tolerate any ammonia in the hydrogen. This meant they were buying a membrane cleanup system, the most expensive piece of equipment that there is within the whole system – costing thousands of pounds.”

Williamson plans to substitute that with existing AFC technology so the membrane cleanup system is not needed. The product can then be sold in higher volumes.