For decades, the integration of renewable sources into the energy landscape has been part of the world sustainability conversation. From giant windmill farms to electric cars, the most likely alternatives to the use of fossil fuels have become familiar to us. But there’s one invention that may eclipse them all and yet has gotten little press: the fuel cell. Although the fuel cell can convert energy in a clean and highly efficient way, it has languished for decades because of the prohibitive cost of fabrication. That may change, thanks to a breakthrough polymer invented at Cornell that can help lower the cost of fuel cells while boosting their reliability, and two Cornell alumni who are determined to develop and market the material.
“This polymer truly has the potential to change the world by enabling the widespread deployment and utilization of fuel cell technologies,” says Gabriel G. Rodríguez-Calero, PhD’14 Chemistry and Chemical Biology. “It will allow the production of high-performance fuel cells at a substantial cost reduction.”
Ecolectro Inc. and a Breakthrough Polymer
Together with Kristina M. Hugar, PhD’16 Chemistry and Chemical Biology; Robert Lewis (University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business graduate); and Cornell professors Geoffrey W. Coates and Héctor D. Abruña, Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Rodríguez-Calero cofounded a company called Ecolectro in the summer of 2015 to develop and market the breakthrough polymer invented by Coates and his team. The Coates research group developed the polymer partially as a project of the Energy Materials Center at Cornell, which was directed by Abruña. They aimed to create less-expensive materials to take the place of membrane materials typically used in fuel cells.
A fuel cell is composed of two electrodes and a polymer electrolyte membrane layer sandwiched between them. Traditionally, a fuel cell runs under acidic conditions and is composed of electrodes made of platinum—one of the most expensive metals in the world—and an electrolyte membrane of Nafion—a Teflon-like material that is expensive to make and difficult to recycle. The Cornell researchers turned their expertise to the problem of finding alternatives for these materials, with Abruña and Francis J. DiSalvo, Chemistry and Chemical Biology, focusing on the electrode materials and Coates on the membrane layer. Eventually, Abruña and DiSalvo developed non-platinum electrode materials, while Coates created the polymer membrane made from commercially available starting materials. The membrane can function in the alkaline environment needed by Abruña’s and DiSalvo’s new non-platinum electrocatalysts.
These inventions resulted in a new kind of fuel cell, one that has the potential to move to the forefront of the energy revolution, says Hugar, Ecolectro’s chief scientific officer, who worked on the polymer in Coates’ lab as a graduate student. “We are marketing that first generation polymer, based on phosphonium cations, and we’ve also gone ahead to develop a second generation polymer with imidazolium functional groups.”
The two polymers have slightly different properties with different costs for fabrication. They will allow Ecolectro to eventually sell its polymers for an array of applications beyond the fuel cell, Hugar explains. For example, Ecolectro polymers could potentially be used in water purification systems and in electrolyzers, which produce hydrogen fuel for fuel cells by separating water into hydrogen and oxygen via the passage of an electrical current. They could also be used in chromatography, a lab technique for separating molecules, which is employed by chemists at drug companies and in other industries.
A Company on the Move
Ecolectro joined Nexus New York, a clean-energy seed accelerator program at the start of 2015. Through that program, Ecolectro asked potential customers what they would like to see from the company. The answers fit right into Ecolectro’s mission. “They wanted fuel cells that were less expensive, longer lasting and could operate at high temperatures,” says Rodríguez-Calero, who is Ecolectro’s chief executive officer. “That’s exactly what membranes composed from our polymers deliver.” Once the Ecolectro team knew they had what customers wanted, they incorporated Ecolectro in June 2015 and licensed the core technology from Cornell in December 2015.
These inventions resulted in a new kind of fuel cell, one that has the potential to move to the forefront of the energy revolution, says Hugar.
Ecolectro recently received a Small Business Initiative Research grant for $150 thousand from the National Science Foundation, which has allowed the company to continue its technical development. Then, in January 2016, Ecolectro became a client company of the Kevin M. McGovern Family Center for Venture Development in the Life Sciences, Cornell’s life sciences technology incubator. “Being part of the McGovern Center is fantastic,” says Rodríguez-Calero. “The center provides excellent facilities, mentors, and an infrastructure for businesses to operate. It’s essentially right in the heart of Cornell, which is a world-renowned research institution. We have access to state-of-the-art equipment and all kinds of instruments through the Cornell Center for Materials Research facilities and the Energy Materials Center at Cornell.”
The infrastructure that the McGovern Center provides also makes it significantly less expensive to start up and run a new company, Hugar says. “We’re setting up our own lab at the center. The facility is rated to handle chemicals. They take care of things like waste management—when I’m developing new synthetic methodologies for polymers, chemical waste is generated that has to be disposed of safely.”
Founding and running Ecolectro is a dream come true say Hugar and Rodríguez-Calero. “I love this project,” Hugar says. “Before I came to graduate school, I cared about energy issues, the environment and the impact on human health. Being able to make that interest part of my career—doing something I care about and being able to continue doing it—that’s the dream. Not everyone gets such an opportunity.”
“I’ve always wanted to start my own business,” says Rodríguez-Calero, who took classes in the Johnson Graduate School of Management while pursuing his chemistry graduate degree. “I am also passionate about renewable energy, and I started investigating fuel cells when I was an undergrad. Once I made the commitment to start a company, I looked at the portfolio of technologies that were available at the Energy Materials Center at Cornell, and I decided that this polymer had the greatest potential to make a change in the world. It is important to use the best technology available for everyone—for the environment and for businesses, too. We only have one planet, so we need to utilize the best tools we’ve got to make change.”