Although the fuel-cell sector may finally be taking off, the German chemical giant BASF has decided to exit one part of the business and close a facility in Somerset, N.J. The move will affect about 25 employees.
It was with some fanfare that BASF opened the $10 million Somerset facility in 2009. The company invited the press and the governor of New Jersey to see a factory where it would produce membrane electrode assemblies for high-temperature polymer electrolyte membrane, or PEM, fuel cells.
Composed of electrodes, catalysts, and membranes, the assemblies allow hydrogen to react with oxygen to generate heat and electricity. BASF primarily targeted stationary applications such as backup generators and combined heat and power systems.
The company now says such fuel cells face competition from many other technologies, including internal combustion engine and microturbine generators and other types of fuel cells. Instead, BASF will focus on supplying catalysts and adsorbents for a broad range of fuel cells.
High-temperature PEM fuel cells promise lower sensitivity to impurities in fuels than do their low-temperature cousins, according to Dan Carter, an analyst with the London-based market intelligence firm Fuel Cell Today. But problems with longevity and durability have prevented the high-temperature cells from significantly penetrating the market, Carter says.
Overall, the fuel-cell industry had its best year ever in 2012, Carter says, thanks to residential installations in Japan and growth in portable chargers for electronics. Hyundai launched the world’s first commercial fuel-cell vehicle earlier this year, and Carter expects other automakers to follow.