The Nanofactory

In an old Ford plant in Buffalo, the makings of an assembly line for the 21st century.

The sprawling Buffalo, New York, assembly plant, perched on the bleak eastern shore of Lake Erie, bears all the signs of abandonment. The parking-lot asphalt is riven with cracks, and the grimy loading docks haven't seen a delivery in decades. In fact, Ford Motor Co. last produced an automobile here in the 1950s.

But walk up the marble staircase with its brass railings—a remnant of the plant's glory days 70 years ago—to the second floor. There, the mood shifts. Some 20 white-coated scientists and engineers at startup NanoDynamics are in the final stages of perfecting a fuel cell made from nano-manipulated materials such as nickel powder, an electrolyte sheath made from a ceramic called zirconia, and a perovskite cathode.

NanoDynamics wants to make a cell small enough to fit in a backpack but powerful enough to keep the lights on in a house in rural China using commonly found fuels such as methanol. Which is challenging enough. But it also aims to apply one of the 20th century's most revolutionary ideas—Henry Ford's assembly line—to this very 21st-century product. Fuel cells, the company believes, could change the world—if someone can figure out how to mass-produce the things.

"Fuel cells, in many ways, are like the automobile at the turn of the 20th century," says NanoDynamics CEO Keith Blakely, a 49-year-old veteran of advanced materials research. "They are interesting toys, but are neither reliable enough nor affordable enough to be of critical importance or interest to major industrial or consumer segments."

For now, as Blakely optimistically puts it, "we've got a lot of runway." His plant, which once turned out 60,000 vehicles a year, stretches 1,000 feet wall to wall and 40 feet to the ceiling. Of that, NanoDynamics' line takes up just a few hundred square feet behind the offices where Edsel Ford, Henry's son, used to sit.

There's a "paint room," where doll-sized spray guns apply the electrolyte sheath around the swizzle-stick-sized ceramic and nickel tubes that make up the main components of the fuel cell. Nearby, two furnaces smaller than conventional ovens are ready to "season" the nanoceramic tubes. It takes 36 seasoned tubes in a canister the size of a soda can to make each cell.

Blakely already has a customer: the U.S. Army, which hopes that the 9.5-pound fuel cells will replace the 30 pounds of batteries that soldiers now carry to power equipment such as radios, night-vision goggles, and handheld computers. If his fuel cell—called Revolution-50—can survive assembly-line trials and, later, the rigors of an Army field test, Blakely believes it will be a short jump to mass production for consumer use. He hopes that fuel cells one day will deliver power in developing countries where limited energy resources and environmental concerns make it difficult to electrify homes outside big cities.

And, of course, there's the real long-shot dream: that a fuel cell built in this old Ford plant may one day help power a hybrid car. It sure would be poetic, a technological bridge from one century to the next. Henry Ford might like that.

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