Cella Energy may have the solution for carmakers trying to win support for hydrogen power, writes Amy Wilson .
In less than five years, your new car could be powered by a high-pressure tank of hydrogen rather than petrol.
This is what the big carmakers are driving at as they seek to produce vehicles with low or no carbon emissions, but they face a number of obstacles in making it a reality.
The first is public acceptance; visions of the blazing Hindenburg airship inevitably spring to mind when hydrogen is mentioned – not really what people want from a family car. Beyond that are the practicalities, how do you fill your car up safely with a volatile gas? How do petrol stations become high-pressure hydrogen stations?
Cella Energy, an Oxford-based energy technology company spun out of the government-backed Science and Technology Facilities Council and University College London in 2010, aims to answer these questions by supplying hydrogen for fuel in the form of small plastic-looking pellets. They release hydrogen when heated above 100C (212F), which is taken up by a fuel cell to power the car.
“To a man, car manufacturers think hydrogen is the future for vehicles,” said Professor Stephen Bennington, Cella’s co-founder and chief scientific officer. “They’re aiming to roll out the first affordable vehicles from 2015 using high-pressure gas tanks in the back of your car.
However, the infrastructure costs of putting in gas compressors, which cost between $1m (£650,000) and $2m each, mean the average mom-and-pop filling station would have to find $10m. So we’re working on small pellets which act like a fluid, and can be pumped into your car in a familiar way using pumps that are not dissimilar to those used now.”
Cella is working towards having its hydrogen fuel pellets ready for use between 2015 and 2017, as an alternative to high-pressure tanks. The ideal testing ground would be a fleet of vehicles that all get refuelled in the same place, such as Royal Mail vans, said Prof Bennington, 48.
If it succeeds, and the company says it is in talks with all the major carmakers, the scale of the opportunity is clearly immense. But until that happens, Cella has the more prosaic problem of making enough money to keep its research going.
“What we have is a convenient way of storing hydrogen,” said Prof Bennington. “You can use it in lots of places but none of those markets exist yet. The challenge is to make a business around the idea. The car manufacturers’ development cycle is seven years. As a small, venture-capital funded company, we don’t have seven years. We have to find nearer-term revenue.”
Cella is trying to raise between $10m and $15m, which it estimates will fund its research and product development for the next three years. “We’re two years away from serious revenue,” said Prof Bennington. “It’s valley-of-death time.”
Cella’s technology has already won the approval of Space Florida, a state-funded body that awarded the company £2m in 2011 under an agreement in which it carries out research at NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida as well as in Oxford.
It also raised £300,000 in 2010 from Thomas Swan, a County Durham-based chemicals maker. The company’s early fundraising efforts were helped by winning Shell’s Springboard award for low-carbon business ideas. “It gave us publicity we could never have afforded, and credibility,” said Prof Bennington.
In March, Cella raised a further $4m from a consortium of high net-worth investors from the north of England, including its chairman Bryan Sanderson, a former chief executive of BP’s chemicals business.
These fundraising efforts have given Cella the money to set up two labs, one in Florida where it has five employees, and one near Oxford where it has 15 staff. The company also has 15 clean-energy PhD students, mainly from UCL and Oxford, and aims to have 50 staff in three years time.
To start producing revenue, Cella is developing partnerships in a number of industries, starting with long-life batteries. The first market it has identified is unmanned aerial vehicles (the smaller ones used for reconnaissance rather than the armed version).
By putting a fuel cell using its hydrogen pellets into a UAV, it will have three times the amount of energy as with a standard lithium battery, according to Cella. “They’re moving into the civilian market as an eye in the sky, for the police and companies who want to survey their pipelines and rigs,” said Prof Bennington. Cella aims to start making revenue from the replacement batteries within two years.
The second project, which could start producing revenue in three years, is “co-combustion” systems to be used in the diesel engines of heavy-goods vehicles. Cella is working on a cartridge of its hydrogen pellets which would feed into a diesel engine, making it more effective and reducing carbon emissions by 10pc. The aim is that the cartridge system could be fitted onto older vehicles.
“EU targets are on an escalator and people are fitting catalysts to clean up exhausts,” said Prof Bennington. “It’s neater and potentially cheaper to fix it within the engine itself.” Cella is also working on radiation shielding technology with NASA, which could extend the life of electrical equipment on satellites from seven to 10 years.
But Prof Bennington does not see this work as a major revenue stream: “It’s exciting to be involved in space but so far we haven’t found anyone to say they will buy it from us now or in 10 years time.”
For the professor, a physicist by trade, the precarious nature and commercial realities of running a start-up have not been the rude awakening some might imagine. “Academics are now seriously pushed to think about the potential use of any research,” he said.
“In every grant application you write, you have to think, who is going to buy this? Twenty years ago you would have been sneered at for doing something 'applied’ but now you get huge recognition for it. So the selling process has been surprisingly familiar.”
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