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Ballard dissolves Ebara Japanese power generation joint venture

VANCOUVER, B.C. – Ballard Power Systems (TSX:BLD) has dissolved a cogeneration joint venture for producing electricity and hot water in Japanese homes, saying it would take too long to develop the technology. The Vancouver-based fuel cell developer said it and partner Ebara Corp. of Japan both agreed to abandon the project because the extended timeline would require a much greater investment.

Ballard would have had to invest millions more annually to go forward with the project, president and chief executive John Sheridan said.

“We believe that this decision is in the best interest of both joint venture parties, along with our shareholders,” Sheridan said.

He said Ballard will take a non-cash gain in the second quarter of about $10 million as a result of the move. The company lost $2.9 million in the first quarter from the business, he said.
Ebara Ballard Corp. made stationary power systems for the residential cogeneration market in Japan, and were part of a government subsidy program. Ballard said it will continue to sell its cogeneration fuel cell stack products in Japan and the joint venture will continue to service systems already in the field. Sheridan said the decision doesn’t change its guidance, or its projection to sell about 4,000 fuel-cell units in 2009. The company had planned to ship 500 of the residential cogeneration units in Japan this year, as well as 1,000 fuel cells for forklifts and 2,500 for backup power systems. Sheridan said the company expects to make up the difference, which is about $2 million to $3 million in revenues annually, through its other businesses. Ballard is projecting annual revenues of about $68 million this year, which is at the lower end of its guidance.

The company has been expanding into other fuel-cell uses after selling its automotive fuel cell development business to Daimler AG and Ford Motor Co. (NYSE:F) early last year. At the time Ballard said it wanted to focus more on what it sees as other promising businesses, such as materials handling, backup power and residential cogeneration. BMO Capital Markets analyst Brian Piccioni believes the move is a good one for Ballard, calling the Japanese cogeneration business “a distraction.”

“As far as I’m concerned it was never a viable business and it’s a good thing they are getting out of it,” he said.

He said more promising ventures include selling fuel cells to India’s growing market. Last fall, Ballard signed a development and supply agreement with ACME and IdaTech LLC to supply 1,000 fuel cell units in 2009 and 9,000 units in 2010. Ballard shares closed down two cents to $2.10 on the Toronto Stock Exchange Monday. Last month, Ballard reported a loss of US$18.6 million in the first quarter, citing weak shipments and falling revenues along with restructuring costs from recent staff cuts. Ballard, which reports in U.S. dollars, said the loss amounted to 22 cents per share for the quarter ended March 31.

The most recent results included $1.1 million worth of severance costs when the company laid off 32 employees, or seven per cent of its workforce, earlier this month. The loss was compared to a profit of $81 million or 87 cents per share for the same period last year, buoyed by a $97-million gain from the sale of its automotive fuel cell development business to Daimler and Ford. Quarterly revenue fell to $8.1 million during the quarter, down nearly 50 per cent from year-earlier levels of $16 million, as weakness in the auto sector crimped demand for the company’s products. Total product shipments fell to 192 from 284 during the same quarter the year before.

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May 26, 2009 - 3:52 PM No Comments

Going Nano

Going Nano
It looks like an ordinary golf club. And for sure it will not help you beat Tiger Woods. But the shaft made from nanotube carbon fibres may help improve your handicap. That’s what golfers want – a little leg up from science.
Not only golfers, users of nanotech products in diverse fields—from electronics, health, engineering, telcom to such mundane items such as scratch-proof glass—are finding that they are getting better value for money. Small has never been so beautiful.
Nanotechnology is the control of matter at the atomic or molecular level, less than the size of 100 nanometers –that’s one billionth of a metre, or 40,000 times smaller than the human hair. It has the potential to create many new materials and devices with wide-ranging applications. Yet it has also raises many of the issues which any new technology triggers, including concerns about toxicity and environmental impact of nanomaterials.
The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, a US-based non-profit body says that around 1,000 new nanotech products are currently available globally, hitting the market at a pace of three to four a week. According to American Elements, a leading manufacturer of advanced products, thousands of nanoparticles, nanopowders and nanotubes products are already playing a significant role in industry, environment, medicine, science and even at home.
Rare Earth nanoparticles are being used for removal of excess phosphate in the blood of patients. Magnetic nanoparticles are showing promising application in treatment of cancer, magnetic storage and magnetic resonance imaging. Carbon nanotubes, which are the stiffest and strongest known fibers and have unique electrical properties, are being used in flat screen displays, scanning probe microscopes and golf clubs. Platinum based nanomaterials are being used to develop small membrane fuel cells, an answer perhaps to the energy crisis. For the skin-conscious, nanoscale ZnO is being used to create transparent sunscreen lotions.
In India, nanotech products have just started hitting the market. Among the first companies to introduce them is Kolkata-based United Nanotech Products, a joint venture between a subsidiary of United Credit Industries and US-based NEI Corporation. The company has launched cathode and anode nanomaterials designed to deliver high performance in lithium-based batteries. “As personal electronic devices get more compact, the batteries that power them must get smaller and lighter, store more energy and retain capacity. This is where nanomaterial battery electrodes have a great potential,” Debashis Dabriwal, managing director of United Nanotech said. The electrodes can also be used in hybrid vehicles, power tools and military applications.
The company’s Rs 14-crore Howrah plant went on stream two months ago and Dabriwal believes he has a strong market in Southeast Asia. He plans to step up production three-fold in the next five years. According to him, not many nanoproducts are being manufactured yet in the country. “Although lots of research work is taking place, unfortunately we do not get to see much of commercial activities. I think what is needed is more industry-research institute cooperation to foster the growth of nanotech products,” said Dabriwal.
One institute at the cutting edge is Bangalore-based Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research where the nanoscience unit is synthesising films and powders and inorganic nonotubes and nanowires. It’s also looking at nanocrystals of various metal oxides, which show strong magnetism. Another centre of research is Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Arindam Ghosh, assistant professor at its Department of Physics says that there’s a ‘paradigm shift’ in material and device designs. “Nanotech offer endless possibilities to search for exotic material properties and new electronic applications as also unique combinations. For example, carbon nanotubes are not only excellent electronic transistors, but also found to be the strongest material known.”
A few companies are getting on to the production bandwagon. Auto Fibre Craft is producing nanosilver and nanogold used in electronic products, including conducting inks for printers. Dabur is offering its nanoparticle Paclitaxel formulation against lung cancer, which is said to avoid reactions the earlier conventional drug produced.
But if nanotechnology is all that great, why are there doubts about its usage? Much of course, has to do with the fear of the unknown. Because of their sheer small size, nanomaterials can permeate through any barrier and manufacturing processes and product safety tests do not account for such small and reactive particles. Nanoparticles pass through air and water filters, and may even slip undetected into our bodies and into our cells – with unknown effects.
Nanopollution is the name given to the waste generated by nanodevices or during the nanomaterials manufacturing process. This kind of waste may be dangerous, again because of its size. Writing in Chain Reaction, Gyorgy Scrinis, a research associate at the Globalism Institute argues that it is not currently possible to “precisely predict or control the ecological impacts of the release of these nano-products into the environment.”
Says IIS’ Ghosh: “noncarcenogenic materials at nanoscales have not posed a serious threat to health and safety, while those which are carcenogenic are to be handled with care anyway. Although no accurate report of health hazard by penetrating nanomaterial through human skin exists handling of nanomaterials in laboratories are generally done with great care and safety.”
For the developing world, nanotech has its own set of benefits and risks. In a country like India, it may provide new solutions for the millions who lack access to basic services, such as safe water, reliable energy, health care, and education. The 2004 UN task force on science, technology and innovation noted that some of the advantages of nanotech include high productivity, low cost, and modest requirements for materials and energy. Also, it uses less labour, requires less land and lower maintenance. But the benefits should be seen against the potential risk to the environment, human health and worker safety.
At the moment, though, most of the fears are just that—fears. But there’s a great challenge before the manufacturers on how to deal with nanopollution. Perhaps there’s a need for regulation in this area which could then restore the balance between the benefits and costs — and release the technology to usher in the brave new world it has promised.

With inputs from Ritwik Mukherjee in Kolkata and Dhiren Dhuku in Delhi

Varun Dutt is a doctoral scholar at Carnegie Mellon University, PA

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May 26, 2009 - 11:44 AM Comment (1)

Advanced Fuel Cell Systems Provider Protonex Issues Strategic Update

SOUTHBOROUGH, MA; Protonex Technology Corporation, (”Protonex” or the “Company”), (LSE AIM: PTX and PTXU), a leading provider of advanced fuel cell systems, today announces a strategic shift to position the Company more effectively relative to current opportunities in its targeted consumer, OEM and military markets. In summary, the Company has decided to defer the 2009 launch of its M250-B product into the U.S. recreational vehicle (RV) market to focus more of its near-term technical and business development resources onto the military version of this product, the M250-CX. This move will also provide time for a set of cost reduction efforts on the M250-B product which should make it more economically attractive when it does enter the market. The Company will continue with planned OEM and “beta” site evaluations of the M250-B product in the coming months but has decided not to make this product generally available to the consumer RV market in 2009 as previously planned.

The following factors contributed to this strategic decision:

  • The Company is seeing a substantial increase in funding opportunities with the U.S. Military for the development, testing and acquisition of high performance portable power sources. A good portion of this multi-year funding is associated with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and could result in: 1) significant incremental demand for the Company’s M250-CX system and its other military products, 2) additional funding for existing Protonex programs, or 3) new funding opportunities for the Company.
  • The poor global economy has severely impacted the RV market in the United States; sales of new RVs, used RVs, and RV accessories are significantly down and are expected to remain weak for the balance of 2009. Selling a new, high-value power system like the M250-B into the current RV market is expected to be challenging and offers less near term potential than alternative opportunities.
  • The current development, testing and certification schedules would result in a mid-summer M250-B availability date for general consumers. This date falls in the middle of the RV season – a relatively slow period for sales of RVs and accessories.
  • While the global economy and the RV market are down this year, both have the potential to improve considerably over time and make a 2010 launch of the M250-B product more attractive for the Company.
  • The Company is planning significant cost reductions for the current M250-B platform, including several opportunities enabled by recently developed technologies. Pursuing these cost reductions in 2009, rather than at a later date, would allow the Company to launch and market the M250-B product in 2010 with lower sale prices, stronger margins, and a higher probability of success.

In the coming months, Protonex will be supporting a set of beta test sites and several OEM evaluations of the M250-B product. One of the Company’s beta partners is a large, multinational generator company that is planning to engage its internal personnel as well as two of its external lead users in M250-B product testing. Planned OEM evaluations for the M250-B currently include one or more DC backup power companies, a security systems company, and several other auxiliary power system providers. The Company recognizes the value of external product data and will be incorporating findings from beta sites and OEM evaluations into its 2010 versions of the M250-B and related products.

The Directors believe that this strategic shift is the optimal path for the Company when all factors are considered. Protonex is fortunate to have several attractive dimensions to its business model and the ability to shift resources between them as conditions require. The Directors expect that, relative to the Board’s prior financial projections, this change will not have a material impact on 2009 net financial performance and cash flow results.

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May 5, 2009 - 12:06 PM No Comments

Hydrogen Fuel Tank gets cooler and cleaner

Scientists have improved the performance of ammonia borane as a hydrogen storage material – making it more practical for a fuel tank in hydrogen-powered vehicles. The material was enhanced by the addition of catalytic nanoparticles to the structure, allowing it to release hydrogen more cleanly and at lower temperatures.

Finding ways to store hydrogen to run next-generation fuel cell vehicles is a challenge, since traditional metal canisters filled with compressed or liquefied hydrogen gas are heavy, bulky and expensive. A better solution is to use a solid material, and the most promising candidate for this is ammonia borane (NH3BH3) – a waxy solid consisting largely of hydrogen.

However, there are drawbacks to using this material. Releasing the hydrogen can be tricky, usually requiring heating at over 100°C, which is too hot for polymer-based fuel cells to operate. In addition, the material is prone to become unstable – expanding rapidly or turning into foam – and released hydrogen can be poisoned by other gases released from the heated material.

Now, Ping Chen and colleagues at the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics, in Dalian, China, have modified the structure of ammonia borane to eliminate these problems. ‘By introducing nanoparticles of cobalt and nickel catalysts into the structure we can hold nearly 6 per cent by weight of hydrogen at a temperature as low as 59°C – with no byproduct and sample foaming,’ Chen told Chemistry World.

Better breakdown

The team worked in collaboration with researchers at the National University of Singaporeand used a ‘co-precipitation’ method to uniformly distribute a small amount of catalytic nanoparticles throughout the ammonia borane structure. The new material releases hydrogen at the lowest temperature so far – and the high stability makes it an attractive candidate for further investigation as a practical onboard hydrogen storage material.

‘This system lowers the temperature for hydrogen gas release and therefore has potential as an efficient way to supply hydrogen to a fuel cell,’ says Tom Autrey at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington, US, who led the first investigations into the storage potentials of ammonia borane. ‘This process also reduces the concentration of borazine – an unwanted impurity in the hydrogen that can arise from AB decomposition.’

But there is still work to be done, Autrey notes, before this technology is truly able to blossom. Since the process is not yet easily reversible, a system will be needed that allows the fuel tank to easily be recharged with hydrogen.

Lewis Brindley


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May 2, 2009 - 12:07 PM No Comments