August 12, 2022
Jim Zheng

FSU professor Jim Zheng displays the Buckypaper fuel cell that he helped create.

Photo: Jon M. Fletcher

Anthony Delgado

Test technician Anthony Delgado monitors the power output for several small fuel cell stacks.

Photo: Jon M. Fletcher

Research Florida

Hydrogen Hopes

Bing Energy — founded on the work of FSU researchers — offers a tantalizing glimpse into a hydrogen-powered future.

Lilly Rockwell | 5/27/2014

In 2004, Florida took a stab at establishing itself as a leader in hydrogen-fuel research. The state created a public-private partnership that trotted out a package of demonstration projects and tax incentives meant to provide a road map for hydrogen-fuel business development in Florida. The Florida Hydrogen Business Partnership’s efforts didn’t generate much momentum, however, and two showpiece hydrogen fueling stations the group helped set up in Florida have since shut down. (Today, there are only 10 hydrogen fuel stations in the U.S., according to federal data.)

A blip of hope for hydrogen in Florida began to take shape two years later, however, during a lunch at a Tallahassee Subway restaurant between two colleagues — both Chinese expatriates — at Florida State University.

Ben Wang was a founding director of FSU’s High Performance Materials Institute, where he had conducted pioneering research into uses for Buckypaper, a material made of microscopic carbon tubes 1/50,000th the diameter of a human hair. Sheets of Buckypaper are 250 times stronger than steel but 10 times lighter. The material, which conducts electricity about as well as silicon, holds big promise for a host of engineering applications in aircraft, prosthetics, building construction, ships, body armor and cars.

Jim Zheng, meanwhile, was a professor in FSU’s department of electrical engineering. He was focused on studying alternative energy sources, including fuel cells that combine hydrogen and oxygen to create a chemical reaction that generates electric current [“Fuel Cell Science”].

At the 2006 Subway lunch, the two discussed various applications for Buckypaper before figuring out that “this could be a pretty good way to develop a fuel cell,” Zheng says. “That was my idea.”

Using Buckypaper in fuel cells appeared to have two big advantages: One, it could make the cells lighter. More important, they thought, the properties of Buckypaper could reduce the amount of expensive platinum the cells needed to produce the chemical reaction.

Over three years of research, Zheng and Wang, with the help of post-doctorate student Wei Zhu (now Bing’s R&D director), developed a cell that met a technical goal set out by the U.S. Department of Energy: It could sustain a vehicle for 5,000 hours of running time — the equivalent of 100,000 miles. Zheng says the Buckypaper cell also appeared to be more stable than existing cells, with a longer lifespan.

By late 2009, Zheng started to think his invention should be in the hands of people who knew how to run a business. He called up an old college friend — Harry Chen — and that led to the formation of Bing Energy. (Wang, now an engineering professor at Georgia Tech, was not among Bing’s founders and has no role in the company.)

Today, the company’s fuel cells use less than half the platinum of traditional fuel cells. While it costs about 30 cents per square centimeter to build a Bing cell, about the same as a traditional cell, Bing CFO Dean Minardi says “our durability is more than two times as much,” cutting the life-cycle cost of the Bing cell in half.

Headquartered in a technology park in Tallahassee, Bing’s 10 employees include the executive team and other high-level workers with Ph.D.s who continue to do research and engineering work.

Some at Bing foresee a day when electric cars will be powered not by electricity stored in batteries, but entirely by power generated by hydrogen fuel cells.

All acknowledge that that day is still a long way off, however. And for the forseeable future, Bing’s transportation-related efforts in the U.S. will focus on producing fuel cells that don’t provide a primary power source for vehicles. Instead, the Bing cells will help extend an electric vehicle’s range by partially recharging its batteries as the car operates.

In mid-April, Bing Energy purchased the assets of a company in West Palm Beach called EnerFuel — giving Bing access to the company’s 40 patents and prototypes of vehicles with hydrogen fuel cells used as range extenders.

Tags: Energy & Utilities, Environment, Research & Development, Technology/Innovation, Transportation, Research Florida, Hydrogen Hopes

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