“We want to be the leading supplier of catalysts for heavy duty truck applications.”—Paul Matter, CEO, pH Matter
Fuel cells have been talked about decades as the magic bullet solution to the carbon conundrum. Fuel cells take hydrogen and convert it to electricity, leaving only water instead of carbon dioxide and other toxins as waste.
As the technology has been slow to develop, fuel cells have taken a back seat to electric charging for vehicles. But fuel cells power buildings, vehicles, even submarines. Worthington-based pH Matter, which has produced components for mobile fuel cell applications since 2009, is poised to take advantage of technological breakthroughs in the field.
pH Matter produces a catalyst, the heart of the cell itself, made of proprietary specialized carbon and platinum that makes cheaper, more durable fuel cells.
The company’s market and competitors are primarily in Japan and Europe, where the hydrogen fuel infrastructure is more advanced.
Fuel cells pose an advantage over battery-electric engines because they can refuel rapidly and with much less labor. Many large warehouse-dependent companies such as Amazon already use fuel cell forklifts—in 2017 Amazon began the switch to fuel cells.
Industry insiders say North American companies are on the brink of breakthroughs in the heavy duty truck industry, including Cummins, GM and Nikola Motors.
“When you see a big dog like Cummins doing this, you’re seeing ... opportunity here,” says Pat Valente, executive director of the Ohio Fuel Cell Coalition. “We have a number of companies in the state in fuel cells. It’s a booming market.”
Valente points to rapidly growing Plug Power, which is headquartered in Albany, New York, but is expanding its service center in Dayton.
Buses present another opportunity—Canton’s transit agency is piloting a fleet of 12 H2-powered buses. Over the 12-year lifespan of a transit bus, fuel cell vehicles are close to reaching cost parity and solve a lot of problems for cities, says David Cooke, senior associate director for Ohio State University’s Center for Automotive Research. Cooke was part of the team that created the world’s fastest hydrogen-powered car, the Buckeye Bullet II, in 2009.
“Think of the cities with the worst air quality problems—throughout Europe they’re starting to ban internal combustion vehicles in city centers. Anywhere there are air quality problems, it’s a way to turn off emissions,” Cooke says.
Cooke says pH Matter has an important role to play in putting fuel cell vehicles on the road—and in giving Ohio manufacturing a role.
The U.S.-based supply chain, says pH Matter CEO Paul Matter, is why the DOE is funding a $2.3 million project with the company. “We want to be the leading supplier of catalysts for heavy duty trucks,” he says.
pH Matter also recently won a $3.4 million grant from NASA for a project using solar power to produce hydrogen from water over the 14-day long lunar days, and then converting it back to electricity and water to run space stations over the equally long, dark lunar night. pH Matter was just awarded a patent for that reversible fuel cell on Dec. 2.
pH Matter recently spun off a new entity, Power to Hydrogen, to advance that research. It hired Tad Dritz as CEO.
The company has backing from Rev1 Ventures, Ohio Third Frontier and Shell. It’s in the midst of a $2.5 million seed fundraising round for Power to Hydrogen and has raised $1.5 million of that from non-dilutive sources including Shell.
Matter projects Power to Hydrogen will grow to 40 employees, and pH Matter could double in five years to 20 workers.
Cynthia Bent Findlay is a freelance writer.