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Fuel cells spurring a potent approach to power generation

3M Europe : 23 April, 2003  (New Product)
Thanks to its strengths in materials R&D, its broad manufacturing technology platforms and its ability to consistently coat large surfaces with ultrathin films, the company can bring specialized technical strength to fuel cell manufacturers.
A hundred years ago, society was in the process of moving from steam and horsepower to the internal combustion engine. Today, as we contemplate the uncharted waters of a new millennium, the world is about to shift to a new source of power the age of chemical power highly efficient fuel cells that generate electricity from abundant hydrogen, natural gas or other fuels.
3M has a place in this new world.

The company already has commercialized a few products for chemical power source applications. In the near future, 3Ms business is expected to ramp up very quickly, with large volumes of components for fuels cells.

3M believes that the age of chemical power is approaching quickly. Over the next few years, single-home-size fuel cells (capable of generating up to seven kilowatts of power) will be commercially available. In five to 10 years, more muscular (50 kilowatt) fuel cells will be powering automobiles. On the battery replacement side, small fuel cells (10 watts to 250 watts) will be available for cell phones, laptop computers and palm pilots because of fuel cells higher power density.

The single-family power plant

An impressive opportunity lies in the fuel cell industry, which is predicted to show stunning growth in the new few years. Unlike a battery, which stores and delivers a fixed amount of energy, a fuel cell produces power like an internal combustion engine for as long as it has hydrogen and oxygen from air.

Fuel cells are highly efficient and so reliable that banks and hospitals are beginning to install them as back-ups or even primary power sources. They also are quiet and compact a single homes fuel cell system ultimately will have the bulk of a central air-conditioning unit. Each home could have its own constantly running generator, with excess power being sold to electrical utilities over existing lines. And home fuel cells will be easy to install. In most cities and towns, they will run on the existing natural gas infrastructure. At lake cabins and other remote locations, or in developing countries, the cells can run on propane or butane.

On the other hand, the automotive and electrical power industries are struggling to meet changing environmental expectations. In this regard, fuel cells are an attractive alternative to traditional technologies. They produce less carbon dioxide per mile (in cars) than internal combustion engines and much less per kilowatt-hour (for homes) compared to coal-fired generators. Other byproducts are heat (which often can be put to use in homes and cars) and water.

Product Offering

3M expects to contribute in three ways to the explosive growth anticipated for fuel cells. First, 3M can provide unique materials to fuel cell manufacturers. For example, the company has developed a membrane and precious metal catalyst coatings that do a superior job of initiating the electro-chemical reaction. This helps increase performance and drives down cost.

Second, 3M has excellent coating technology for forming thin films and coated webs in large scale with high quality. Finally, the company is a leader in high-yield automated assembly manufacturing processes. Few companies on the planet have the ability to put together the manufacturing base this industry requires. 3M has in place the manufacturing capacity to supply the worldwide industry need for the next two years and will add capacity as the market grows.

A few years after the residential market takes off, the automobile industry will start to shift to fuel cells, and another massive market will open up. 3M estimates that 15 million to 20 million square meters of precisely coated multi-layer films will be needed to satisfy just 10 percent of the North American auto market alone.

That surge in volume will help overcome one of the greatest barriers facing this technology: price. The incorporation of other 3M technologies such as microreplication, conductive materials, precision molding, fluorochemicals, and polymers will be part of the refinement.

Further into the future, 3M expects to have advanced materials to facilitate the generation of electricity.
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