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December 20, 2011

CellEra Raises $9.2 Million from Vodafone, Carmel Ventures to Bring Affordable Fuel Cells to Market
By Cheryl Kaften
TMCnet Contributor

A four-year-old Israeli company that has found a way to eliminate the costliest component of fuel cells—platinum—is attracting hefty investments and far-flung interest.

CellEra, which is ready to begin the commercialization of a less-expensive,  kilowatt-scale, platinum-free fuel cell, has raised $9.2 million in an investment round led by Newbury, England-based Vodafone Ventures, the global venture capital arm of Vodafone (News - Alert) Group, together with top-tier Herzliya, Israel-based VC firm Carmel Ventures.  

The two have joined forces with the company’s largest shareholder Kfar Hayarok--based Israel Cleantech Ventures, the leading venture capital fund focused on backing Israel’s emerging clean technology companies, as well as St. Gallen, Switzerland-based B-2-V Partners and private investors.

This is a first for Vodafone, one of the world’s largest mobile communications companies, which never before has financed either a cleantech project or a project in Israel. And with good reason. Fuel cell researchers have been looking for cheaper, more abundant alternatives to platinum, which costs between $1,000 and $2,000 an ounce and is mined almost exclusively in just two countries: South Africa and Russia.

While fuel cells have now been recognized as a reliable renewable power generation source, enabling mobile network operators to reduce power-generation-related emissions and end-of-life hazards, wide market acceptance has been hampered to date by their high costs. CellEra’s introductory product is targeted at the $3 billion annual telecommunications supplemental-power market, offering an affordable, clean, and safe alternative to lead-acid batteries and diesel generators.

CellEra was founded in 2007 based on the technology vision of its Chief Technology Officer, Dr. Shimshon (Ziv) Gottesfeld. The company’s mission has remained the same since the concept was first drawn on a napkin in a Boston seafood restaurant: To dramatically reduce fuel cell costs and, thereby, finally unlock their mass market potential.

In a conventional fuel cell, a platinum catalyst at one electrode breaks down hydrogen into protons and electrons. The protons pass through a proton exchange membrane to a second electrode, where they react with oxygen to produce water. The electrons are syphoned off as electric current. Platinum has so far been the metal of choice because the membranes used in fuel cells create a very acidic environment, and the metal is stable in such corrosive conditions.

As in the standard Polymer Electrolyte Membrane fuel cell (PEM-FC) fuel cell, the “heart” of CellEra’s of Platinum-Free Membrane (PFM-FC) fuel cell is a catalyzed, solid polymer electrolyte. However, as this new form of polymer electrolytes conducts OH- (hydroxyl) ions as opposed to H+ ions (protons), the chemical environment in PFM cells is mildly alkaline as opposed to the highly acidic environment in PEM cells. Therefore, low-cost transition-metal based catalysts can be used instead of platinum.

The mildly alkaline environment facilitates the use of light aluminum hardware, without risk of corrosion enabling, in turn, cost-effective manufacturing even at initially low volumes, as well as improved thermal management. Finally, the OH- ion conducting membrane itself is made of a less expensive polymer.

While the membrane is conducting hydroxyls (OH-), CellEra’s fuel cell technology is significantly different than a liquid electrolyte, alkaline fuel cell. There is no aqueous potassium hydroxide (KOH) in the system, and the only liquid is de-ionized water. The CO2 challenges encountered in alkaline fuel cells have been resolved by CellEra via an innovative, patent-pending approach, which does not involve the use of any liquids scrubbing.

Ziv Gottesfeld told Israeli business newspaper Globes, "Our prototype is already working at CommScope, a large U.S. communications infrastructure company. Two years ago we began a joint development project through BIRD, the Israel-US Bi-national R&D Foundation. The development project was recently successfully completed. We are signing a commercialization agreement and working on a commercial prototype."

Of the recent financing round, Gottesfeld commented, “We are highly excited with this investment and the added value it brings our company,” adding, “Beyond the available capital, Vodafone’s investment will serve to facilitate our approach to the telecommunications marketplace, and our ability to direct our cost-effective, clean-energy fuel cell technology toward the requirements of global telecommunication operators.”

The company will have commercial prototypes in 2012 and expects to have its product on the market in 2013.

Cheryl Kaften is an accomplished communicator who has written for consumer and corporate audiences. She has worked extensively for MasterCard (News - Alert) Worldwide, Philip Morris USA (Altria), and KPMG, and has consulted for Estee Lauder and the Philadelphia Inquirer Newspapers. To read more of her articles, please visit her columnist page.

Edited by Rich Steeves


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