Colorado firm hopes to lower fuel cell tech costs |

Colorado firm hopes to lower fuel cell tech costs

(Longmont) Times-Call
** FOR USE IN WEEKEND EDITIOONS OF APRIL 11-12 ** Synkera Technologies process engineer John Valdez places aluminum membranes in a tank in which the items will be turned into "anodic aluminum oxide membranes" -- AAOs -- at the company's lab in Longmont, Colo., in this photograph taken on Wednesday, March 18, 2009. AAOs hold great promise in the areas of biomedical devices and in renewable energy, specifically in the development of hydrogen fuel cells. (AP Photo/Longmont Times-Call, Joshua Buck)
AP | Longmont Times-Call

LONGMONT ” Hydrogen fuel cell technology has been touted as one of the best options to replace the internal combustion engine, but so far, cost has been a barrier.

A Longmont company, six-year-old Synkera Technologies, hopes to change that.

The nanotechnology company is branching out from its roots as a maker of sensors that detect gases. It’s now developing anodic aluminum oxide membranes ” AAOs ” high-tech filters that hold promise in a variety of applications, including biomedical devices and renewable energy, particularly in hydrogen fuel cells.

The technology is cost-prohibitive compared with standard gasoline engines, but Steve Williams, Synkera’s co-founder, president and chief technical officer, said he believes his company can help bring the cost of fuel cell technology down from $10,000 to a few thousand dollars.

“Ultimately, no one’s going to replace what’s there until it’s economically viable,” Williams said.

Synkera’s AAO membranes are not like the filter in a home air conditioner. The AAOs, which can filter gases or liquids, have pores that are sometimes as small as 100 nanometers wide, or one one-thousandth the width of a human hair.

“You’re down to the molecular level,” Williams said.

The membranes the company makes for hydrogen fuel cells allow only hydrogen gas to pass through.

“The key with the hydrogen separation membrane is to purify the hydrogen,” said Williams, who has a doctorate in analytical chemistry from the University of North Carolina. “And you need pure hydrogen to go into a fuel cell.”

Synkera’s research into the membranes is continuing, but it has started selling them commercially to companies working on hydrogen fuel cell technology.

Williams and chief financial officer Brian Sperry formed Synkera after they met while working at a local nanomaterials company.

The two decided they could use their knowledge of materials and nanotechnology to make their own devices.

Synkera’s start with the manufacture of sensors was intentional, Williams said, because hundreds of companies make monitoring instruments, but fewer than a dozen make gas sensors.

Synkera’s funding in the early years came almost exclusively from government grants, specifically Small Business Innovation Research grants.

Synkera continues to develop gas sensors and other types of filters for government agencies and has about 10 government projects on the books at any given time, Williams said.

NASA and the National Institutes of Health are two current customers of the company.

But while 80 percent of the company’s revenues still come through government contracts, sales of its products to private companies have doubled in the past three years, Williams said, adding that he sees the commercial sales side of the business increasing in the near future.

John Cody, president and CEO of the Longmont Area Economic Council, said it’s common for smaller companies in the Longmont-Boulder area to use SBIR grants to get off the ground.

“It’s basically part of the way that technology gets commercialized,” Cody said. “The federal government, when they do SBIR, aren’t interested in funding anything existing commercial technology would do. They’re interested in funding technology that is more theoretical ” trying to bring new technology to the market, which is riskier.”

Williams sees Synkera spinning off other companies to commercialize its products, once the technology becomes more widely known and accepted.

For the time being, he and his 12-person team are comfortable playing the scrappy little guy, confident in a bright future.

“There’s an AAO program at Argonne (National Laboratory),” Williams said. “There’s some very powerful people out there at those labs outside of Chicago, but they can’t do it like we do, and we’re not about to tell them how.”


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