A new family of catalysts that could revolutionise fuel cell take-up has been put into production by Acta under the impetus of a major deal with Sumitomo Corp.

Fuel cell technology enabler Acta has won a major contract for its platinum-free nanotechnology catalyst Hypermec. It has signed a commercial sales and distribution deal with the Chemicals Business Unit of Sumitomo Corp to cover Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Acta expects a competitive launch of fuel cells to the mass consumer market, mainly for laptops and mobile phones, as a result of the deal, and further expects to announce major OEM contracts during the coming twelve months. Natural partners would be leading OEMs such as Nokia, Toshiba, Samsumg and LG which all have active programmes to introduce fuel cell powered products.

The key points of the new catalyst are, according to its maker, that it works as well as platinum-based catalysts on the standard fuels of methanol and hydrogen but at a fraction of the materials cost, and that it works well enough on the safer fuels such as ethanol and ethyl glycol for viable operation at room temperature, which platinum based catalysts cannot. In addition it is free from the problem of CO doping, a phenomenon that reduces the effectiveness of platinum based solutions.

The new family of catalysts, based on Fe-Co-Ni nano-scale structures, is expected to break down the barriers to the commercialisation of fuel cells for mass market applications. As virtually a drop-in replacement for existing technology it is expected to do no less than revolutionise the $4 billion fuel cell business and provide the basis for greatly accelerated growth of the market, at least partly in the new area of battery replacement as demands on power sources for consumer items such as laptop computers outstrip the capacity of the current generation of batteries.

It uses low cost materials, works at low temperatures, and allows the use of cheap, safe and environmentally friendly fuels. It is based on the development of a Vulcan polymer used as a support substrate for near-molecular scale Fe-Co-Ni and nickel particles, a breakthrough that occurred as an accidental by-product of routine development work on a heavy-metal free polymer for use in water treatment plant associated with the tanning industry.