Drones Powered by Light-Weight Fuel Cells Could Make Aerial Investigations Safer, More Efficient

Stevens researcher founds Hoboken Fuel Cell, increasing the power life of drones by ten-fold

Inspecting the windows of the Empire State Building for leaks, cracks, or other damage using human labor may be a time-consuming–and potentially dangerous–task, especially if you were doing it from the outside. But Stevens Institute of Technology professor Ronald Besser has a better idea: drones equipped with cameras that can collect photo and video data for live analysis.

Besser is a researcher in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at the Charles V. Schaefer, Jr. School of Engineering & Science where he studies emerging power source approaches.

There’s one drawback to his plan. Today’s small drones are powered by bulky lithium polymer batteries that last only about 25 minutes. If it takes five minutes to fly to an upper floor of a 100-story building, you only have 15 minutes of air time before you have to bring the drone back to replace its battery. That’s not a lot of time to inspect hundreds of windows.

But Besser also has a solution: small, lightweight, compact, flexible hydrogen fuel cells that can keep a small drone in the air for at least an hour, and ultimately for 10 times as long. He and his students developed a new type of micro fuel cell in his lab at Stevens, one that is lighter and more compact than existing types. With the help of the Stevens Venture Center, he is in the process of patenting the technology and commercializing it. That’s how his company, Hoboken Fuel Cell, was born.

What is a hydrogen fuel cell?

A fuel cell is an alternative energy source for producing electricity. Unlike a battery, which stores energy, a fuel cell generates energy through the conversion of fuel. Typical fuel cells look like metal boxes. Hydrogen and oxygen are pumped inside, where polymer membranes help convert the chemical energy of hydrogen into electrical energy. These fuel cells can power everything from drones to cars.

“Our invention basically strips away all of the metal, and that makes it a lot lighter,” Besser said. “It uses the polymer membranes inside as the main bit of the device. It's like stripping away everything you don't need. You’re left with something that's two-dimensional, like a sheet.”

The result is a thin, flat, flexible device that can conform to whatever shape it’s attached to. One square inch generates about one watt of power—so a 10 x 10 panel generates about 100 watts. A typical lightweight drone requires 250-300 watts. It’s highly efficient, immediately recharges, and is inherently non-polluting. “By being able to carry more energy than a lithium battery can, we can double or even make up to 10 times the flight time,” he said.

Besser also said the fuel cell membrane could potentially serve as the “skin” of a drone or another vehicle. “It's a completely different way to think about a fuel cell. It can be integrated into a vehicle much more easily than a box can.”

From complex to simple

Besser and his students began experimenting with improving fuel cell technology in the late 2000s. The first iterations, developed on multi-million-dollar equipment at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, Long Island, had complex, esoteric architectures.

Over the next several years, they simplified the design so they could produce it at Stevens. “I've heard it said that the very simple ideas are the ones that become successful products,” Besser said. “Its performance was very competitive with some of the best fuel cell technologies.”

In late 2016, they presented their fuel cell design to the Institute Patent Committee. “They do more than just fill out paperwork,” Besser said. “They have a legal firm that does the preparation of the patent, and they work with the inventor to make sure that the application is correct.”

During the presentation, Besser had a Eureka moment: “I was looking at the metrics, and I realized we had something that could be viable commercially,” he said. “I came out of there thinking that we really had something people would care about.”

The committee voted to proceed with a full patent application in November 2017.

From invention to market

Besser then turned to the Stevens Venture Center, which helps inventors and entrepreneurs explore the commercialization of their science and technology ideas. It connects them to infrastructure, legal services, accounting and tax services, and funding assistance, among other resources.

The Stevens Venture Center helped Besser secure a $50 thousand National Science Foundation grant to do a market study. Finding a market for an invention “is very important. You could have the greatest invention in the world, but if there's no market for it, it has little commercial value,” he said.

Besser also received help from a team of entrepreneurs-in-residence (EIRs) at the Stevens Venture Center, experienced company founders with knowledge and networks to share, and connections to venture capital funding.

He met with his EIR team monthly for more than a year. “They have helped me to form tangible milestones for commercialization. What technical issues should we attack in order to have a prototype that can get the attention of investors? What do we want to look for in a CEO of a very small startup like this? What kind of personnel needs do we have?”

His few competitors are traditional fuel cell companies focused on larger drones. Besser believes his company can grow by targeting smaller drones. “We're expecting that people will want to pay a premium for something that allows them to do what they can't do with their [current] batteries,” he said.

It’s not just inspecting skyscraper windows that he’s envisioning for Hoboken Fuel Cell. Many large structures require routine but essential monitoring, including railroad tracks, bridge joints, solar panels, and wind turbines. “When you think about the ability to inspect miles and miles of railroad tracks, a drone can do thorough inspections very cost-effectively—faster than a human, and certainly cheaper,” Besser said. “And it just makes a lot of sense to not put a person in harm's way.”