Technology jointly developed at the University of New Mexico and Daihatsu Motor Co., Ltd., was recently honored as a “Top 10 Innovation” at the inaugural conference of the Innovation for Cool Earth Forum held in Tokyo, Japan.  

The fuel-cell technology, developed by UNM School of Engineering Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering Plamen Atanassov and his team and Daihatsu Motors Executive Scientist Hirohisa Tanaka and his team, was recognized for its large-scale potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, its innovative method for making non-platinum-based fuel cells, and its feasibility for successful global commercialization.   

ICEF Challenge
ICEF is the brainchild of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has challenged the world community to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2050. Realizing that technology innovation is the key to achieving this goal, the prime minister proposed a new international forum where government policymakers, university researchers and industry leaders could address climate change challenges through knowledge sharing and collaborative innovations in energy and environmental technologies.

The event was hosted by Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) and its New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO). Co-hosts were the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and Ministry of the Environment (MOE).   

The event drew more than 800 participants from 80 countries and regions and held concurrent sessions on geothermal power, solar energy, automobile technologies, energy efficiency, Japan’s international smart community collaborative demonstration projects, the role of the public sector in R&D sustainable energy technologies, and how developing and developed countries can collaborate on energy technology innovations. 

UNM community pleased
STC Economic Development Manager Eri Hoshi, who attended the conference on behalf of STC, noted that Prime Minister Abe stated that fuel cells, iPS cells (induced pluripotent stem cells) and robotics would be among the top three technology areas that Japan will focus on for future innovations.

“Out of 100 submissions, 21 technologies were chosen as finalists and voted on by the attendees. Our fuel-cell technology came in at No. 4 in the top ten innovations honored. That’s pretty impressive, and it is a wonderful example of how international cooperation can produce really exciting discoveries,” she said.   

STC CEO Lisa Kuuttila said that Atanassov was recognized as an STC.UNM Innovation Fellow this year as a prolific inventor with a large portfolio of innovative fuel-cell and bio fuel-cell technologies. 

“We are delighted that UNM and Daihatsu’s fuel-cell innovation was singled out by ICEF,” she said. 

UNM School of Engineering Dean Joseph L. Cecchi said this is but one example of the innovative research going on at the school, as well as the way in which that research can benefit society. 

“One of our focuses in the School of Engineering is to develop world-changing discoveries that solve some of our most pressing challenges,” Cecchi said. “This fuel-cell research development is a great example of not only our stellar research capabilities, but our strong emphasis on collaboration with industry partners.”

Atanassov collaborations
Atanassov has been collaborating with Daihatsu and its industry/university partners, the CAFÉ (Creation of Anionic Fuel Cells for the Earth) consortium, since 2007 to create non-platinum catalyst technologies for the Tanaka-led hydrazine hydrate fuel cell. He is honored to have the UNM technology recognized as an innovative solution to making fuel cells affordable and essential to accelerating the growth of the fuel-cell industry.

“The new catalyst is composed of inexpensive, earth-abundant metals, such as iron, and fully replaces the rare and expensive platinum. The price of a platinum catalyst is estimated to be nearly 40 per cent of a fuel cell’s cost, being one of the critical barriers for the technology’s market deployment. The new, platinum-free fuel-cell car is also enabled by the development of an alkaline membrane as a core technology,” Atanassov said. “This technology is especially promising for the automotive market where fuel cells will play a major role in reducing greenhouse gases.”   

Local start-up company Pajarito Powder is already manufacturing the non-platinum catalyst as drop-in replacement fuel-cell catalysts for the back-up and portable-power markets and is also focused on addressing the needs of the automotive market where there is high customer interest in fuel-cell technology.

Work with Daihatsu
Daihatsu, a company within the Toyota Group of Toyota Motor Corporation, designs and manufactures small cars and fleet vehicles for the Japanese market.

Tanaka and his team designed the fuel cell for electric cars using liquid hydrazine hydrate as the fuel because it has low combustibility, is stabler than  gasoline and diesel fuel, can be transported and stored in inexpensive polyethylene containers (as compared to hydrogen fuel) and discharges nitrogen and water but no carbon dioxide. Tanaka believes that the global collaboration of the CAFÉ group contributed to the technology being chosen. 

“I believe the fact that our fuel-cell technology was the result of global joint research among universities, research institutions and private companies in and outside Japan was highly valued by the voters,” he said. “This honor validates our work and encourages us to accelerate our efforts to commercialize the technology.” 

Daihatsu presented a prototype vehicle at the 2013 Tokyo Motor Show and has been functional testing the prototype. The collaborators hope to have a product in the market within five years.  

Top 10 Innovative Technologies
The other top 10 innovative technologies chosen at the ICEF conference include:

  • NEDO’s international smart grid projects, which included the smart grid/smart building demonstration projects in Albuquerque and Los Alamos;
  • a crystal, silicon-based solar cell technology ;
  • a  floating offshore wind power system equipped with a transmission and distribution unit ;
  • a perovskite-type solar cell;
  • a carbon-capture and storage system for coal-fired power plants;
  • a disaster-resistant microgrid technology;
  • a nanostructured carbon-based catalyst electrode (LANL technology);
  • a demonstration project for a vehicle-to-building system;
  • a silicon-carbide power semiconductor for automobiles .

ICEF is providing a Web-based platform in order to promote year-round discussions in between annual forums. The next ICEF conference will be held in Tokyo from Oct. 6-8, 2015.