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UNM fuel-cell technology honored in Japan

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

The University of New Mexico is basking in the international limelight for developing a cutting-edge technology bizO-RobinsonAvila_Kevin_BizOin collaboration with Daihatsu Motor Co. Ltd. that could radically cut production costs for hydrogen fuel cells.

The technology – a new, non-metal catalyst that eliminates the need for using precious metals, such as platinum, in fuel cells – was chosen as a “Top Ten Innovation” at the first annual Innovation for Cool Earth Forum in Tokyo in October. The conference, created by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to advance innovative technologies that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, included some 800 participants from 80 countries.

UNM and Daihatsu took fourth place out of about 100 technologies, earning the university and the automaker broad international recognition for their achievement, said Lisa Kuuttila, UNM’s chief economic development officer, and president and CEO of the Science and Technology Corp., UNM’s tech-transfer office.

“We are delighted that UNM and Daihatsu’s fuel-cell innovation was singled out,” Kuuttila said. “For UNM, it establishes us as one of the leading universities worldwide for this type of technology.”

The Top Ten honor also bodes well for Pajarito Powder, an Albuquerque startup that launched in 2012 with backing from the Verge Fund to commercialize UNM’s fuel-cell technology.

“It positions Pajarito Powder very well to be a supplier to Daihatsu and other manufacturers who want to incorporate non-metal catalysts into fuel cells,” Kuuttila said.

The technology was developed by Plamen Atanassov, UNM distinguished professor of chemical and biological engineering, who has led a team of university researchers in partnership with Daihatsu scientists since 2007. Daihatsu, Japan’s oldest automaker and a member of the Toyota Group, has provided about $1 million in funding for the research.

“Daihatsu approached me in 2007 under recommendation from Toyota because they knew our group was developing a non-metal catalyst to make a fuel cell without using precious metals like platinum or gold,” Atanassov said. “We’ve created a technology that relies on abundant, easy-to-obtain materials that include iron, nitrogen and carbon.”

Eliminating precious metals can radically reduce the expense of making hydrogen fuel cells, since the price of platinum catalysts, which are widely used today, accounts for nearly 40 percent of a fuel cell’s costs.

The catalysts, whether metal-based or otherwise, are what initiates the chemical reactions that power fuel cells, which convert hydrogen and oxygen into electricity. The catalysts cause oxygen to separate into single molecules, creating a negative charge. They also break down the hydrogen, freeing up electrons and creating a positive charge.

That creates an electric current through an environmentally friendly process that generates only waste water when the hydrogen combines with oxygen molecules. And, unlike batteries, fuel cells can produce electricity continually as long as oxygen, hydrogen and a catalyst are supplied.

Until recently, however, alternative catalyst materials that match platinum’s performance in fuel cells haven’t been commercially available. Other universities, and public and private laboratories worldwide are working to develop effective alternatives with metal and non-metal materials, but the Top Ten award in Japan helps set UNM apart, said STC economic development manager Eri Hoshi, who attended the Japanese conference.

“Out of 100 submissions, 21 technologies were chosen as finalists and voted on by conference attendees,” Hoshi said. “Our fuel-cell technology came in at No. 4 in the top ten innovations honored. That’s pretty impressive.”

Daihatsu has developed three demonstration vehicles to date with hydrogen fuel cells that use the UNM catalyst technology.

“They’ve built and shown three automobile prototypes over the past six years,” Atanassov said. “The latest one is working in the streets as a full demonstration model.”

UNM licensed the catalyst technology in 2012 to Pajarito Powder, which also obtained similar technologies from Michigan State University and Los Alamos National Laboratory. It’s now providing commercial samples of its material to customers worldwide in various industries, including the auto industry, and backup and portable power markets, said Tom Stephenson, managing partner of the Verge Fund, which invested $1 million in the company in 2012.

“This technology recognition will hopefully generate more commercial activity,” Stephenson said. “It bodes well for our business model.”

Pajarito closed in October on a follow-on round of funding. The amount of the new raise remains confidential, but it included a $100,000 contribution from UNM’s recently formed co-investment fund, plus new commitments from Verge and individual investors, Stephenson said.

Apart from the prestige earned by UNM from the Japanese recognition, plus the boost in commercial potential it provides for the catalyst technology, UNM students also benefit as participants in an internationally honored achievement, Atanassov said.

“At least eight students have participated in the project over the years,” Atanassov said. “For me, the biggest benefit is that students get to see technology that they helped develop move from the lab to the inside of a car.”

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