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Abq startup could open fuel-cell floodgates

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Albuquerque’s Verge Fund is betting $1 million on a new catalyst for hydrogen fuel cells that could cut production costs by ten fold or more.

The technology eliminates the need for platinum, a precious metal more expensive than gold, which has driven up fuel-cell costs and impeded widespread adoption, said Paul Short, CEO of Pajarito Powder LLC, which Verge launched to make and market the catalysts.

“Reasonably low prices for existing (platinum-based) catalysts range from $100 to $150 a gram,” Short said. “We can do way better than that, dividing it by a factor of ten times or less.”

Short, a serial entrepreneur and Verge venture partner, said customers are lining up to test Pajarito’s technology.

“I’ve been in contact with customers worldwide, and virtually everyone I’ve spoken with has said ‘Yes, give us a sample, we want to test it,'” Short said. “That’s unique in my experience as an entrepreneur.”

Customer interest reflects a race among researchers worldwide to replace platinum in hydrogen fuel cells.

Pajarito’s technology is based on breakthroughs at the University of New Mexico, Michigan State University and Los Alamos National Laboratories. All three have developed non-platinum catalysts that include polymer and metals, such as iron and cobalt, to initiate the chemical reactions that make hydrogen fuel cells work.

The cells convert hydrogen and oxygen into electricity. Platinum, or Pajarito’s alternative catalyst materials, cause oxygen to separate into single molecules, creating a negative charge. The materials also break down the hydrogen, freeing up electrons and creating a positive charge.

That creates an electric current through an environmentally friendly process that only generates waste water when the hydrogen combines with oxygen molecules.

Unlike batteries, fuel cells can produce electricity continually as long as oxygen, hydrogen and a catalyst are supplied.

Until now, however, alternative catalyst materials that match platinum’s performance in fuel cells haven’t been commercially available.

Barr Halevi, a UNM scientist who helped develop the new catalyst and then joined Pajarito as chief technology officer, said the combination of UNM, Michigan State and LANL technologies represent a “game changer” in the fuel cell industry.

“Platinum is not only extremely expensive, it pretty much only comes from South Africa,” Halevi said. “Our (catalyst) can be made domestically, eliminating some major hurdles and hopefully making fuel cells more viable and cost accessible.”

Pajarito will set up a small manufacturing facility this fall in Albuquerque and begin operating by December, Short said.

The company has options to license UNM and Michigan State’s technology, and it’s negotiating an extension on a prior license option it had with LANL. It’s also negotiating licenses with two other U.S. universities that have worked on similar technologies.

“We believe we can combine the best of each technology to create something even better, while also forming a defensive strategy to protect our intellectual property so no one else can come in and get it,” Short said.

Still, Pajarito faces competition from researchers in Canada, Europe and Asia, said Plamen Atanassov, a chemical and nuclear engineer who led UNM’s research team.

“There’s more than one set of intellectual property out there,” Atanassov said. “But Pajarito Powder is creating a portfolio holder that will give it all, or at least the most important, technology developed in the U.S.”
— This article appeared on page B1 of the Albuquerque Journal