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The Competence of UniTech

A PIPE company participates in the construction of a fuel cell in Minas

A new business was kicked off by the chemist Antônio César Ferreira and his company UniTech, after the conclusion of his project for the production of a fuel cell through the Program of Technological Innovation in Small Companies (PIPE) of FAPESP. He actively participated in the development of the first fuel cell presented by the Energy Company of the State of Minas Gerais (Cemig), the electricity utility of the State of Minas Gerais, during the 1º Congress of Technological Innovation in Electrical Energy (Citenel), held at the beginning of November in Brasilia.

The cell, the size of a small refrigerator, is fed by hydrogen and is capable of producing 1.5 kilowatts (kW) of energy. “The equipment makes up part of a three-year program, with financial assistance of R$ 5 million, that Cemig is investing in several projects for the development of fuel cells”, explains José Henrique Diniz, the manager at Technology and Alternative Energies of Cemig. As well as the Cemig researchers, also participating in the project are researchers at the Chemical Institute of São Carlos of the University of São Paulo (USP), at the Institute of Technological Research (IPT) and at the company Clamper, in the city of Belo Horizonte.

The presentation of this new fuel cell, which uses technology developed here in Brazil, is an important milestone for the country because throughout the world there is the ongoing search for the technical improvement and the expansion of the use of this type of silent equipment, fed by pure hydrogen, which does not pollute and generates only water as its residue. The fuel can be extracted from natural gas, from alcohol or even gasoline. The most obvious option, which would be that of the extraction of hydrogen from water, is an expensive option and needs an enormous input of energy in this process still in need of new studies.

Second prototype
The Cemig fuel cell is actually the second prototype on which Ferreira has worked. The first, of 1 kW output – sufficient for five 100 Watt lamps -, he produced during a project financed by FAPESP, which was concluded this year. Ferreira does not get tired of talking, at the various events to which he is invited, that it was FAPESP funding which enabled him to come back to Brazil after having spent nine years in the United States (see Pesquisa FAPESP issues N°s. 60 and 64). “I sent in the project in 1997 when I was still in the United States”, recalls Ferreira. The following year he set up the company in his home town of Cajobi, close to the city of São José do Rio Preto, in a small house belonging to his family.

The academic preparation of Ferreira had its beginning with his graduation, masters and doctorate at the Chemical Institute of São Carlos of USP. Afterwards, he moved on to the United States where he did his post-doctorate and worked as a researcher on fuel cells at the Agricultural and Mechanical University of Texas (A&M). Then he worked as a researcher at the MER company in Arizona. In these places, he carried out projects for government organizations such as NASA, the North American Space Agency, the American Army and the Department of Energy, as well as the Japanese companies Asahi and Mazda. Even after having been granted American citizenship and having received proposals from venture capital funds to start a company and to produce fuel cells in the United States, in the state of Connecticut, Ferreira came back to Brazil with the prospect of producing fuel cells for all of Latin America.

With financing of R$ 197,000 and a further US$ 77,000 through the PIPE Program, Ferreira mounted his company and his laboratory to develop the catalysts, parts which he calls the heart of the fuel cell. It is on the catalysts that the breakdown of the hydrogen molecules takes place. The gas (H2) penetrates the anode side (negative) of the cell and has its structure broken into positively charged particles, the proton, and the negative, the electrons. The former migrate through the polymeric membrane and come up against oxygen atoms from the air on the other side, the cathode (positive), react and form water. The later, the electrons, don’t manage to pass through the membrane, circulate in the outside area of the electrode (catalyzer plus membrane), generating electrical energy.

Research centers of academic institutions and companies are moving forward in the development of materials for fuel cells, making them more and more efficient as well as cheaper. Less than three years ago, companies in the United States, Canada, Germany and Japan began to sell these pieces of equipment, still under specific orders and with restricted production. Today there are several prototypes with the capacity of providing electrical power of between 10 watts (W) and 11 megawatts (MW), to supply portable equipment of small towns.

With the capacity and size of the market, the next steps for Ferreira, must be to take into consideration a critical analysis of the proposals that he is receiving to begin industrial scale production of his cells. He is also studying the offer by the City Hall of Cajobi to install the UniTech company in a building of 400 m² with the possibility for an expansion to 10,000 m². “I still don’t know what it is going to happen”, says Ferreira, without anxiety and relaxed about his future. He believes that he can, within a short period of time and with the investment from another company, produce fuel cells of 100 kW of power. “It is only a question of investment”, he evaluates.

Father of the fuel cell
The principles for the working of a fuel cell were developed in 1835, by the Welshman William Robert Grove, today considered to have been the father of the fuel cell. The closest form to today’s fuel cells came about in 1930, through the studies of the English engineer Francis Bacon. After that moment they had remained almost forgotten because of the cheap oil and the difficulty of obtaining more efficient materials hindered a greater technological and commercial advance of the cells.

At the end of the 50’s, the idea of a fuel cell was taken up and developed by Nasa as the best alternative for the production of electrical energy and water for the spacecraft on the Gemini and Apollo missions. The first fuel cells used in the space race were very expensive. Today the tendency is for cheaper fuel cells, such as that used by the PEMFC technology, Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel Cell, the type of cell developed by Ferreira.

Substitution of motors
As well as producing electrical energy in stationary locations, the fuel cells greatly promises to replace motors and fuel used today in all types of vehicles. Almost all of the automobile manufacturers are developing fuel cell projects for adaptation to automobile vehicles. Daimler-Chrysler, Honda and BMW have already presented demonstrations of cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells, still hybrids that use gasoline. The conventional batteries of lead metal, which generate electricity for the vehicles will also be exchanged for fuel cells. BMW is already using this type of battery in two car models.

The challenge for Ferreira now is to expand his company – that currently has five employees – and to place his product on the market. Setting up an industrial plant will still take some time and the market is open to this type of electrical energy generator that uses a clean and reliable fuel.

The Project
Advanced Materials for the Manufacture of Bipolar Separators for Fuel Cells of Ionic Conducting Polymer (nº 97/07401-6); Modality Program of Technological Innovation in Small Companies (PIPE); Coordinator Antônio César Ferreira – UniTech; Investment R$ 197,184.64 and US$ 77,482.00