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March 30th, 2010

Adaptive Materials scores Michigan $3M microtubular solid oxide fuel cell award

Published on March 30th, 2010 | By: pwray@ceramics.org

Ann Arbor-based Adaptive Materials Inc, a specialist in making microtubular solid oxide fuel cells, announced yesterday that it has won $3 million in new funding through Michigan’s Centers of Energy Excellence Program.

AMI, until now, has focused most of its efforts on military uses for its SOFCs, such as soldier-worn units, power sources for unmanned vehicles and field uses. The company has both 50- and 250-watt SOFCs that can be fuel with off-the-shelf propane and butane canisters.

While AMI’s business plan has always mentioned applications in the recreational vehicles, boating and medical devices markets, the reality is that it has been easier for military customers to justify the relatively high costs of these portable power devices.

However, a press release from AMI notes that, “The company will use the funding to support the commercialization of its fuel cells within the consumer leisure market.”

AMI may be on to something. It has always struck me that there is some pretty strong logic behind developing small SOFC products whose form factor incorporates safe, cheap and easy to find fuel cartridges. Generations of campers, for example, have grown up using portable stoves and lamps that use these small gas canisters.

Michelle Crumm, AMI chief business officer, says, “Funding from COEE provides the extra boost we need to break into the consumer market and deliver a truly game-changing technology. . . By focusing our technology on readily-available fuels, Adaptive Materials solved a problem associated with fuel cells: Consumers could certainly find need for a fuel cell, but no fuel to actually sustain the unit.”

Presumably, AMI will use the funds to continue to drive down the production costs of making their SOFCs. The company uses a unique co-extrusion method to form its microtubular SOFCs. Earlier this year, in the pages of ACerS’ International Journal of Applied Ceramic Technology, the University of Birmingham’s (U.K.) Kevin Kendall praised recent developments in microtubular SOFC science and applications:

Significant progress is being made in the development of microtubular SOFCs. Since its invention in the early 1990s, information about its benefits has been disseminated, leading to the start-up of several companies interested in applications from laptop power supplies to combined heat and power to transport and APUs.

Plastic extrusion is the main method for producing microtubular cells. This is an economic process, which can lead to high-quality ceramics with good strength and Weibull modulus. Co-extrusion is also a promising possibility that could produce one-step processing of cells.

A key benefit of microtubular SOFC is the increased power density, inversely proportional to diameter. Power densities of 1 kW/L are possible but the number of cell connections rises with the square of power density and could become the limiting factor. Thermal shock resistance of microtubes is many orders of magnitude better than that of planar SOFCs. Ramp rates of 8000 K/min are possible.

Aaron Crumm, Adaptive Materials’ chief visionary officer and co-founder, along with John W. Halloran, published an excellent paper in ACerS’ Journal of the American Ceramic Society back in 1998 about innovative methods to micromanufacture complex ceramic–metal structures:

These structures are fabricated by multiple pass co-extrusion of a feedrod comprised of several powder-filled thermoplastic compounds. The compounds contain either ceramic, metal or fugitive powders. To illustrate the capabilities of microfabrication, a demonstration part containing lead manganese niobate-lead titanate ceramic and silver palladium was fabricated. The final part was microconfigured, with a fenestrated structure containing 3110 repeat units per square centimeter. The repeat unit feature sizes were 15 and 5 µm for the ceramic and electrode, respectively. Microfabrication by co-extrusion is proposed as a fabrication technique for the production of smart structures and materials.

Illustration from Crumm and Halloran paper. Credit: JACerS

Illustration from Crumm and Halloran paper. Credit: JACerS

The COEE program, administered by the Michigan Economic Development Corp., supports the development, growth and sustainability of alternative energy sectors throughout the state. The COEE program focuses on where the state has competitive advantages in areas of the workforce, intellectual property and natural resources but where funding is required to overcome technical and supply-chain hurdles that could prevent or stall the commercialization process.

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