By now, everyone knows that fuel cell power is the coming thing. Maybe not for another decade, but definitely coming.

Meantime, everyone knows the price has got to come down. Way down. And that's where DuPont Automotive sees its opening.

The plastics giant announced last month that it has formed a fuel cell business unit “to pursue growth in the emerging proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell market.” It has become apparent that PEM is the front-running technology for automotive and stationary fuel-cell designs, and DuPont says more specifically that its knowledge in polymers, coatings and even electrochemical applications can bring intrinsic efficiencies to fuel cell design.

DuPont says that it will begin by supplying its Nafion perfluorinated polymer membrane, which already is standard-issue for aerospace fuel cell applications. And the company claims that more than half of a typical PEM fuel cell “stack” can be produced of DuPont materials, including polymer fibers to replace today's graphite plates.

The company also says it is working to increase capacity for the Nafion material, while many types of plastic, in general, are a perfect fit for fuel cell applications because of their engineering properties and the ability to produce them in the desired fashion — no machining required — in high volume and at low cost.

Meanwhile, fuel cell “engine” manufacturer XCELLSiS recently opened a new 53,000-sq.-ft. (4,900-sq.-m) headquarters and manufacturing facility in Poway, CA. XCELLSiS is owned equally by Ford Motor Co., DaimlerChrysler AG and Ballard Power Systems.

The operation converts Ballard fuel cell stacks into “fuel cell engine systems,” and XCELLSiS currently is working on an advanced hydrogen fuel-cell engine that will be capable of operating in cold weather conditions down to well below 0° F (-17° C).

The fuel cell systems are earmarked for both Mercedes and Ford fuel cell production vehicles due to be unveiled in 2004.

An XCELLSiS spokeswoman says the new 30,000-sq.-ft. (2,800-sq.-m) manufacturing section of the facility now is producing engines at an annual rate of 30 per year. There are about 110 permanent employees at the facility, plus some temporary and contract workers.

Dr. Ferdinand Panik, who heads DC's fuel cell vehicle research activities, is chairman of XCELLSiS, which has its main headquarters in Germany. The company also operates another facility in Vancouver, B.C.