Sign up for our newsletter!

Subscribe form (en)

No spam. Simply good reading. Get your free subscription to Smoltek Newsletter infrequently delivered straight to your inbox.

Your data will be handled in compliance with our privacy policy.

Patent Office

Advancing Electrochemical Efficiency

Smolek has received patents for three brand-new innovations that all aim to improve the electrical contact inside PEM electrolyzers, fuel cells, and batteries. This article briefly explains the three innovations in layman’s terms. Hopefully, after reading, you will be as excited as we are about the unique position Smoltek has gained in the clean energy market with these patents.

It’s easy to receive news that Smol­tek has been gran­ted new pat­ents with a shrug or a yawn. After all, such news comes along all the time. Usu­ally, it is a pre­vi­ously known innov­a­tion that has been gran­ted a pat­ent in yet anoth­er coun­try. The ump­teenth in a row. This is, of course, good. But not neces­sar­ily some­thing to write home about. So you’re for­giv­en if you missed the bomb­shell: Smol­tek has been gran­ted pat­ents for three break­through innov­a­tions. We believe these inven­tions will make elec­tro­lyz­er and fuel cell man­u­fac­tur­ers crave our tech­no­logy and know-how even more. Curi­ous? Read on!

Two challenges

The trans­ition to sus­tain­able energy depends on the effi­ciency of elec­tro­chem­ic­al cells – the work­horses behind tech­no­lo­gies such as fuel cells and elec­tro­lyz­ers. How­ever, these essen­tial com­pon­ents face two prob­lems: high con­tact res­ist­ance and rap­id corrosion.

High con­tact res­ist­ance leads to sig­ni­fic­ant energy losses, res­ult­ing in reduced per­form­ance and increased oper­at­ing costs.

Cor­ro­sion erodes the struc­tur­al integ­rity of the elec­tro­chem­ic­al cells, caus­ing them to wear out quickly and require replacement.

All man­u­fac­tur­ers of fuel cells and elec­tro­lyz­ers want to tackle these two chal­lenges. Bet­ter solu­tions are needed.

Guess who is sit­ting on them?

That’s right! Smoltek.

Our super-tal­en­ted research­ers and developers have inven­ted not one but three solu­tions that work togeth­er to deal with these problems.

Three patents

Smoltek’s three pat­ents form a for­mid­able arsen­al against the dual chal­lenges of high con­tact res­ist­ance and cor­ro­sion, mark­ing a sig­ni­fic­ant leap in elec­tro­chem­ic­al cell technology.

Pat­ent SE545845 cov­ers an innov­a­tion we have giv­en the com­pletely unima­gin­at­ive name of ”a sep­ar­at­or plate arrange­ment for an elec­tro­chem­ic­al cell com­pris­ing a nano­struc­ture.” To avoid drop­ping dead of bore­dom when say­ing the name, we use the much sex­i­er unof­fi­cial name: Con­tact Res­ist­ance. This is a mis­nomer, as the innov­a­tion is not about con­tact res­ist­ance but coun­ter­act­ing it. As the offi­cial name sug­gests, this is accom­plished by arran­ging the flow plates in an elec­tro­chem­ic­al cell in a cer­tain way. More about that later.

Pat­ent SE545846 has a much cool­er name: Nano Vel­cro. Sure, it’s not the offi­cial name; it’s as dry as the paper the pat­ent is writ­ten on: “Fuel cell or elec­tro­lyz­er with a con­nect­ive nano­struc­ture.” More inform­a­tion will fol­low on this as well. How­ever, you are cor­rect if you con­clude from the offi­cial name that it is also about redu­cing con­tact resistance.

Pat­ent SE545852 fol­lows and cov­ers also an innov­a­tion to lower con­tact res­ist­ance. (Res­ist­ance is futile!). The offi­cial name does­n’t give much away: “A sep­ar­at­or ele­ment with a coat­ing com­pris­ing nano­struc­tures.” But our unof­fi­cial name is a bit more reveal­ing: Ver­tic­al Graphene. It is sim­il­ar to the first pat­ent, but uses ver­tic­al graphene instead of car­bon nan­ofibers. We’ll get to what that means.

Are you ready to explore the pat­ents a bit further?

Contact Resistance (SE545845)

An elec­tro­chem­ic­al cell is where the magic hap­pens in elec­tro­lyz­ers (elec­tri­city and water become hydro­gen and oxy­gen) and fuel cells (hydro­gen and oxy­gen become elec­tri­city and water). Thus, it’s a crit­ic­al com­pon­ent in many applic­a­tions needed if we are to trans­ition from an energy sys­tem with tons of car­bon emis­sions to a green and clean energy system.

A mem­brane is at the very core of an elec­tro­chem­ic­al cell. PEM elec­tro­lyz­ers and fuel cells use a mem­brane that lets pro­tons through but blocks elec­trons, for­cing them to detour through wires. This is what makes the magic possible.

How­ever, to work, elec­tric­al con­tact between an elec­trode and the sur­face of the mem­brane is required. How hard can it be? Just press an elec­trode against the mem­brane, and it’s done.

Or is it?

Of course, it is not that simple. A lot of water and hydro­gen gas must also fit in the inter­face between the elec­trode and the mem­brane, and if you cre­ate some space for it, the elec­tric­al con­tact is broken.

The way to resolve this is to have elec­tric­ally con­duct­ive por­ous mater­i­al between the elec­trode and the mem­brane. The pores allow water and hydro­gen to pass through while provid­ing path­ways for the cur­rent to flow between the elec­trode and the membrane.

Easy, huh?

No. The dif­fi­culty is to cre­ate a good elec­tric­al con­tact between the elec­tric­ally con­duct­ive por­ous mater­i­al and the mem­brane. And pre­vent the con­tact sur­face from oxid­iz­ing because it is elec­tric­ally insulating.

Enter the stage: Smoltek’s innovation.

If you have been a keen stu­dent, you will recog­nize the solu­tion. We’ve made no secret of it since we applied for the pat­ent. (Inven­tions become pub­lic at the time of applic­a­tion, but in return enjoy pro­tec­tion dur­ing the applic­a­tion period.)

Smoltek’s innov­a­tion is to insert nan­ofibers between the elec­trode and the mem­brane. These are attached to the elec­trode or por­ous mater­i­al, and the tip is stuck into the mem­brane. Elec­tric­ally con­duct­ive car­bon nan­ofibers in elec­tric­al con­tact with the elec­trode and mem­brane reduce con­tact resistance.

Nano Velcro (SE545846)

Do you like Sein­feld? The TV series? I love it. And like many oth­er fans of television’s greatest shows of all time (that’s a sci­entif­ic fact), I can see par­al­lels and sim­il­ar­it­ies every­where between life and the show. In this case, when we talk about Nano Vel­cro, it should be pretty obvi­ous that I’m think­ing of Barney Martin’s line, as Morty Sein­feldt: ”I can’t stand vel­cro. That tear­ing sound.” Unlike Morty, we love vel­cro, at least if they are made of car­bon nan­ofibers and are used to cre­ate strong elec­tric­al con­tact between two lay­ers in an elec­tro­chem­ic­al cell.

For example, let’s return to the con­tact sur­face between an elec­tric­ally con­duct­ive por­ous mater­i­al and the sur­face of a mem­brane. Cur­rent tech­no­logy is to press them togeth­er and hope that there is enough elec­tric­al con­tact. But this has many problems.

On the scale that elec­trons move, there are no smooth sur­faces in per­fect con­tact with each oth­er. Irreg­u­lar­it­ies and grow­ing oxid­a­tion make the con­tact sur­face smal­ler than you might think. There is also a lot of water and gases flow­ing, caus­ing the sur­faces to vibrate, fur­ther deteri­or­at­ing the contact.

In short, it is almost a mir­acle that today’s PEM elec­tro­lyz­ers and fuel cells even work.

This is where our Nano Vel­cro comes in. The idea is to grow car­bon nan­ofibers from both sur­faces and allow them to be mech­an­ic­ally entangled togeth­er, much like a piece of vel­cro. These car­bon nan­ofibers should neither be com­pletely straight nor grow straight out from the sur­face, but they should twist a little and grow at a slight angle. This increases the entan­gle­ment when they are pressed togeth­er. One can even let the car­bon nan­ofibers on one side grow almost par­al­lel to the plane they are attached to, to effect­ively cre­ate mech­an­ic­al interlocking.

This cre­ates lar­ger con­tact sur­faces; each car­bon nan­ofiber has a sur­face area orders of mag­nitude lar­ger than the sur­face it grows on. In addi­tion, the entan­gle­ment cre­ates a mech­an­ic­ally more stable contact.

Vertical Graphene (SE545852)

This innov­a­tion aims at the same thing as the oth­er two: cre­at­ing lar­ger and more stable con­tact sur­faces between an elec­tric­ally con­duct­ive por­ous mater­i­al and the sur­face of a mem­brane. Just like in the first-men­tioned pat­ent (SE545845), nano­struc­tures pro­trud­ing into the mem­brane do the trick. But unlike that, it’s not car­bon nan­ofibers but ver­tic­al graphene that does the job.

Car­bon atoms can bond to each oth­er in many dif­fer­ent ways, cre­at­ing many dif­fer­ent struc­tures. Graphene is one of them.

In graphene, the car­bon atoms form hexagon­al rings, where adja­cent rings share sides and are in the same plane. It looks like a sheet of chick­en wire where the knots are car­bon atoms, and the threads between them are their bonds.

While the “reg­u­lar” graphene chick­en wire grows along the sub­strate, ver­tic­al graphene grows per­pen­dic­u­lar to the sub­strate. They form a chick­en wire fence that twists and turns. It looks like a curved wall. This is why ver­tic­al graphene is also called car­bon nanowalls. They are criss-cross­ing and highly interconnected.

So what’s the point of repla­cing the well-known and trus­ted car­bon nan­ofibers with the new­comer, ver­tic­al graphene? Here’s the tri: this fresh entrant in the nano-world is like car­bon nan­ofibers on ster­oids. All the things that car­bon nan­ofibers do well, they do better:

  • Sur­face Area: Extremely high sur­face area due to the ver­tic­al ori­ent­a­tion of the sheets.
  • Edge Dens­ity: Very high dens­ity of react­ive edges.
  • Con­duct­iv­ity: Good elec­tric­al con­duct­iv­ity, espe­cially with­in the plane of the sheets.
  • Mech­an­ic­al Robust­ness: The inter­con­nec­ted sheet struc­ture of ver­tic­al graphene provides good mech­an­ic­al strength and resilience.

In oth­er words, these new kids aren’t just match­ing the old boys – they’re out­play­ing them on many fronts.

A word of caution

I have tried to describe the innov­a­tions covered by the pat­ents in a hope­fully under­stand­able way. There­fore, I have had to sim­pli­fy the descrip­tion and focus on the most imme­di­ate applic­a­tion areas (fuel cells and PEM elec­tro­lyz­ers). There­fore, this descrip­tion does not do full justice to the scope and applic­a­tions of the innovations.

What I mean by this is that the pat­ents pro­tect far more than just improved elec­tric­al con­tact between elec­trode and pro­ton exchange mem­brane with a por­ous trans­port lay­er in between; they pro­tect far more elec­tro­chem­ic­al cells than fuel cells and PEM elec­tro­lyz­ers. For example, they also pro­tect the anion exchange mem­brane (AEM), which may be used in future elec­tro­lyz­ers and vari­ous forms of batteries.

My point is that these three pat­ents give Smol­tek the exclus­ive right for twenty years to dic­tate the con­di­tions for using these types of solu­tions in all pos­sible contexts.

What now?

Life goes on. We con­tin­ue to devel­op our cell mater­i­al for PEM electrolyzers.

In the case of the three pat­ents, they each form a new pat­ent fam­ily. As the pat­ents for the three innov­a­tions are approved in the EU, the US and oth­er coun­tries, the new pat­ent fam­il­ies will grow.

For Smoltek’s share­hold­ers and investors, these pat­ents are more than just a test­a­ment to Smoltek’s unique expert­ise and invent­ive­ness; they rep­res­ent a true stra­tegic advant­age in the grow­ing clean energy market. 

Our com­pany pos­sesses tech­no­logy and know-how that is increas­ingly sought after as the demand for clean energy solu­tions grows. We can safely say that Smol­tek is very well poised to face the future and become a key play­er in the field. 

Don’t you agree?

Sign up for our newsletter!

Subscribe form (en)

No spam. Simply good reading. Get your free subscription to Smoltek Newsletter infrequently delivered straight to your inbox.

Your data will be handled in compliance with our privacy policy.

Latest posts