December 3, 2007, Updated September 19, 2012

Filling gas could be a thing of the past after news that Israeli scientists collaborating with ExxonMobile have developed a clean fuel cell technology that’s ready to go commercial

Hydrogen fuel cell technology has been celebrated as one of our greatest hopes in the field of alternative energy. It promises a utopian vision of “clean cars” powered by the electrochemical conversion of hydrogen into the inoffensive waste products of water and heat.

But even the best technological breakthrough isn’t much help if it can’t be readily implemented – and that’s long been the stumbling block for the fuel cell, which requires the installation of extensive infrastructure such as liquid hydrogen refueling stations, and secure ways to store the volatile gas, in order to make the electric car a reality.

Now, after years of collaboration, a team of scientists from Ben Gurion University of the Negev, international petrochemical giant ExxonMobile, Canadian gas purification company QuestAir Technologies, and US energy products company Plug Power, believe they may have the answer.

The solution, it seems, lies in the question of storage. If you can’t easily transport refined hydrogen to where you need it, the team led by ExxonMobile thought, then why not just take your refiner with you?

“With ExxonMobil’s research leadership, and the technical capabilities of our partners, we found a way to scale down the traditional hydrogen steam reforming process so that it will fit on a vehicle and connect to a fuel cell,” said Dr. Emil Jacobs, vice-president of research and development at ExxonMobil. “Since this system does not require changes to fuel delivery infrastructure, this overcomes one of the key challenges manufacturers face in developing hydrogen vehicles for potential consumer use.”

The researchers, which include a BGU group headed by Professor Moti Herskowitz, have perfected the design of an on-vehicle system which can take conventional fuels, such as gasoline, diesel or ethanol, and convert them into hydrogen for use in a fuel cell reactor chain.

The on-vehicle hydrogen fuel system comprises an advanced reformer developed by ExxonMobil and hydrogen separation using QuestAir Technologies’ Rapid Cycle Pressure Swing Adsorption system. Sulfur is controlled by an ExxonMobil proprietary S-Trap developed in conjunction with Ben Gurion University.

Plug Power will be responsible for integrating the fuel system with its GenDrive fuel cell power system for lift truck applications. GenDrive power units allow users in large distribution centers or manufacturing facilities to increase productivity and reduce operating costs through a quick refueling process that eliminates the need to change batteries repeatedly throughout the day. GenDrive also eliminates the environmental and safety issues traditionally associated with lead-acid batteries.

Now the new system is ready to go commercial, in the form of a fuel-cell powered forklift vehicle, which is to be commercialized by Plug Power. The targeting of this small but practical niche is key, according to Jacobs, as “an early step in demonstrating the potential benefits this technology may hold in the long-term.”

And these long-term benefits are indeed immense. The system, say the scientists, has the potential to be 80 percent more fuel-efficient than conventional internal combustion technologies, and could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by up to 45%. Multiply that by the millions of cars on roads around the world today, and it’s easy to see that even a small entry into the mass market could make a big difference.

“This is a breakthrough,” a BGU spokesperson told ISRAEL21c. “We have been working with Exxon for decades – but this moment marks the real launch of the technology on a commercial scale.”


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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

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