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Weylchem set to expand fuel cell research in Elgin

Posted: November 15, 2011 4:26 p.m.
Updated: November 16, 2011 5:00 a.m.

Weylchem, a chemical company with U.S. operations based in Elgin, will open a new production line this month for ammonia borane, a substance used to power fuel cells.

An emerging technology, fuel cells are devices that can convert chemical reactions into energy sources.

According to Weylchem Business Manager Bryon Leggett, the hydrogen-rich ammonia borane can produce more energy in fuel cells than most other materials and can be developed on a commercial scale.   

“Of the available solids being used for fuel cells right now, it’s the densest way to store hydrogen,” Leggett said.

He added that the more hydrogen packed into a fuel cell, the more energy the process can create. 

“Initially, it will probably only be cost-effective in portable power applications for the military for things like unmanned vehicles and drones. It also has a lot of potential for underwater vehicles,” Leggett said. “We’re probably three to five years away before someone is using a significant amount of this material. But we’ll be able to demonstrate that a commercial level of it is available and we’ll be able to supply people that are doing research in the area.”   

The expanded production was generated through a $100,000 grant from the Greater Columbia Fuel Cell Challenge, an annual innovation-based competition organized by the University of South Carolina-City of Columbia Fuel Cell Collaborative.

Through the grant, the company was able to invest in more research and produce more than the 100-gram ceiling produced in other laboratories.

“We basically took what was a lab procedure and developed it into a commercial scale process,” Leggett said.

According to Greg Hilton, project manager of the Fuel Cell Collaborative, fuel cells are clean technology that can also incorporate other alternative energy sources.

“The thing I love about fuel cells is that it doesn’t really matter what your fuel source is. For the most part, as long as you have a hydrogen stream being fed in, it can work off of anything,” Hilton said. “It can be hydrogen generated from solar cells. It can be hydrogen generated from wind. It can be natural gas that’s reformed and fed into a fuel cell. It’s one of those things where it’s a great energy efficient ‘clean-tech’ that can leverage whatever energy resource the state decides to invest in.”

Hilton said that with fuel cell technology’s durability and sustainability, it can increasingly be developed for situations where lives are at stake and cost is not a factor.

“Fuel cells are lighter weight, they’re higher density, and their reliability is increasing. When responding to a hurricane-ravaged region like with Katrina, imagine how many lives could have been saved if they had had portable power for their communications grid or backup power for their towers. They didn’t because they were connected to the grid. In those instances, it doesn’t really matter what the costs are because the cost is the number of lives you save,” Hilton said. “And as technology continues to play a larger and larger role in how we engaged in a combat zone, I think we’ll be seeing fuel cells being used more and more with things like unmanned aerial vehicles and underground vehicles.”

He added that by expanding production, the state will be able to create more of a “buzz” for fuel cell technology.  

“The fuel cell market demand isn’t there yet, but these guys can make this (ammonia borane) in large, commercial scale quantities and at a purity level that no one else can do. If Weylchem can really begin to scale this and reduce the cost, then they could create huge new markets,” Hilton said. “In South Carolina, particularly in the central part of the state, we’re really starting to gain some expertise on energy storage. Anytime you can get a concentration of activity, then that’s a good thing. We’re really starting to become an energy leader down here.” 

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