A breakthrough in hydrogen fuel cell technology could keep drones in the air longer

Bill Tucker, Forbes:
One of the first things we learn in science class is that elements occupy three states; solid, liquid, gas. Materials can transform between states, but it typically takes great energy to create that transformation. So, when I learned about an energy company which had developed a proprietary process that combines hydrogen-rich material with a polymer to create a solid form of hydrogen it caught my attention. Best of all, for the hydrogen to be released from that polymer is only needs to be heated to 100ºF. It is plastic energy. Oh, and those pellets can be recycled to be reused again.

The company taking hydrogen plastic is Cella Energy. Cella is a hydrogen fuel cell company offering something very different in the market, a unique way of delivering fuel to hydrogen generators: pellets. Pellets you can hold safely in your hand but more importantly, transport safely. There are plenty of skeptics surrounding the promise of this technology, but Cella is hardly some fly-by-night company. Its list of investors & partners is impressive and includes several aerospace companies as well as the University of Oxford and the British Government.

As regular readers know, I find small change compelling. Big change is rare and never goes un-noticed, but small change zips right under the radar little noticed, or reported, but it is all the small changes that cumulate in substantial change. In many ways, that is what Cella seems to be counting on.

Cella’s CEO, Alex Sorokin, tells me that the company is focusing most of its effort in the area of what he terms portable power, for the moment. Sorokin explained the reason for the decision, saying Cella’s technology is particularly well suited to supply power to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) or drones as they are more commonly known. Hydrogen fuel cells are three times as energy dense as lithium-ion batteries, weigh far less and can be made to conform to any design specification and can significantly increase the time a drone can stay in the air. The facts are so compelling that the company recently signed a contract to supply Israel Aerospace Industries with its hydrogen fuel cell batteries for IAI’s medium-sized UAVs.

Because of the light weight of Cella’s batteries, Sorokin says defense companies are very interested in using the technology to replace those heavy lithium-ion batteries soldiers carry in the field. There is a reason that no sane backpacker loads up on a multi-day hike with a bunch of lithium-ion bricks; they are heavy and cumbersome. The same reasoning applies to troop movement. (While Sorokin was talking about this application of the technology, I couldn’t help but recall the first cell phone I used in the field with its massive battery that had to be carried on a strap slung over my shoulder,)
This is an interesting breakthrough that could also solve the problem of electric vehicle range anxiety.  But the military applications could really drive the development.  From drones to power for troops in teh field this could be a real difference maker.  The pellets would also make it easier to build a supply network for fueling all sorts of vehicles.


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