Trust invests £1m in Acal car fuel cell

A small company whose technology could cut the cost of hydrogen powered cars is to receive a £1m investment from the Carbon Trust, the government arm that pioneers carbon reduction.

Acal Energy is working with Solvay, the Belgian chemical company, and an unnamed Japanese car manufacturer, and hopes to help produce a commercial car engine by 2015.

Its technology has cut the cost of fuel cells, which convert stored hydrogen into electrical power and water, by 40 per cent, by finding an alternative to expensive platinum as a catalyst.

“This could change the world,” said Robert Trezona, research accelerator director at the Carbon Trust. “We could have a mass market car with zero emissions at the tailpipe.”

It would have similar performance to a family car, with a range of 500km, and complement small, city based battery-powered vehicles. The global industry could be worth £180bn by 2050, he said.

Acal’s fuel cell uses a proprietary liquid “catholyte” system based on commodity chemicals rather than platinum. It was invented by Andy Creeth, co-founder, who developed a similar process making detergents while working for Unilever.

Acal is based in Runcorn and employs 32 people. Apart from the Carbon Trust and its industrial backers, three venture capital funds have invested several million pounds in the company.

However, they are demanding an early return so the company has prioritised static fuel cells above automotive ones. Its first mini power plant will be installed in Warrington this year to provide backup power to a Solvay site. It hopes to sell commercially in a year’s time. S.B. Cha, chief executive, said the Trust money would allow it to accelerate research into automotive fuel cells and expand by about a third. He also sees opportunities in power generation.

Prof Trezona said fuel cell investors had “had a lot of disappointment” but the market was changing as carmakers looked to meet European Union emission targets. Daimler, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Renault, Nissan and Toyota have signed an agreement with the German government to produce a fuel cell vehicle by 2015. Germany and California have pledged to build a network of hydrogen filling stations.

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