W7energy: Revolutionizing Fuel Cell Technology
For all the public excitement about different forms of alternative energy sourcing, such as solar and wind power, we often overlook the crucial part of the equation necessary to replace energy from high-carbon sources such as coal: How do you capture and store that alternative energy to bridge the gap between when it is generated and when it is needed?
It’s a problem that has occupied much of the thinking of Yushan Yan, the Henry B. du Pont Chair in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Delaware and head of the startup W7energy. “The problem with renewable energy is that it is non-stable,” Yan says, seated at a conference table in the company’s offices at the Delaware Innovation Space.
As with many startups generated by research started at the university, W7energy is a team effort, with the core of the team consisting of Yan and current and former graduate students and post-docs. Critical to its growth, in late 2019 W7energy was awarded $3.4 million in new funding from the U.S. Department of Energy to advance and commercialize a new class of polymer membranes to make fuel cells considerably more economical. The company has also generated $1 million in private funding as well as receiving a $100,000 EDGE Grant from the Delaware Division of Small Businesses.
“I’ve been working with fuel-cell technology for about 25 years, in the beginning on proton exchange like everyone else,” Yan says. “But in the early 2000s, I realized that if you stay with proton exchange, it is difficult to get away from platinum, which is very expensive.”
So Yan decided to move from an acid to a base environment, which is milder and potentially saves costs on many components. “You ask yourself, where to start,” Yan says, “and the clear answer is with polymers.” Around 2015, he began working with students on the idea of commercializing the concept and also on expanding the patent base, which is owned by the university. As a result, W7energy was officially launched in November 2017.
“We began with provisional patents and then expanded them,” Yan explains. “It’s a process called ‘deciding whether you have gold or garbage.’ If you can’t find value within a 30-month period, do you want to continue spending money on it?”
This approach resulted in UD acquiring six patents around the technology in the U.S. It is currently trying to expand that to 11 countries or regions worldwide. The university is retaining a stake in the company and will receive royalties once commercialization begins.
Yan says the influx of funding will allow the company to operate “on an incremental scale” with its eight employees for at least another two years. “If we are doing okay in a year or two, we will need to scale up. Right now, our biggest potential customers are in Europe,” he says. “Once we get a few thousand square meters of material, then we’ll need to look at where to manufacture.”
The process also has the promise of manufacturing clean hydrogen for multiple commercial uses.
“Right now,” Yan says, “we’re concentrating on our foundation — membrane technology. We want to focus on materials. Vertical integration can come later.”