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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

BWT Taps IntoWater-Powered Future

MONDSEE, Austria -- If water-powered cars, cell phones, laptops, ships and power stations become the technology of the future, then Austria's BWT AG says it is well placed to exploit the industry's vast potential.

Europe's leading manufacturer of water treatment technology has seen its shares soar by more than 130 percent since it announced in January that it had developed a high-performance membrane for use in fuel cells.

Billions of dollars are being invested worldwide in developing fuel cells, a pollution-free alternative to batteries as a source of power.

"When this technology comes, then BWT is absolutely at the forefront," chief executive Andreas Weissenbacher said. "There are over 60 fuel cell manufacturers worldwide at present, and those are our potential customers."

Dwindling reserves of fossil fuels and mounting concern about damage to the environment caused by carbon dioxide emissions and greenhouse gases have prompted big conglomerates to seek alternative sources.

Car makers including Ford, DaimlerChrysler, Honda, Nissan, General Motors and Toyota as well as the big oil groups are all working on the development of fuel cell technology.

DaimlerChrysler plans to start limited production in 2004 of a car using fuel cell technology developed by Canadian-based Ballard Power Systems.

Business consultants Arthur D. Little said global sales potential for the fuel cell market should reach 3 billion euros ($2.9 billion) per year by 2005.

Of this, 300 million euros is expected to be generated by membranes in the auto industry alone.

"There are currently 630 million cars in the world and even if only 1 percent makes the switch to fuel cells, the potential is phenomenal," Weissenbacher said.

Fuel cells, which are fuelled by hydrogen, produce electricity by splitting the electrons and protons in the gas and recombining them with oxygen. At the heart of the fuel cell is a diaphanous membrane that acts like an electrolyte.

BWT says its membrane differs from conventional membranes in that it is recyclable.

It says rival products such as those made by its main competitor DuPont, Ballard and W.L.Gore & Associates Inc. are generally made from fluoropolymer, a non-recyclable compound.

"If a membrane is not recyclable, then those auto makers striving for a green car are certainly going to go for the BWT membrane - it's recyclable and there isn't another one like it," Weissenbacher said.

Other advantages of the Austrian group's non-fluorinated polymer membrane are its strong resistance to oxidation and heat, and high efficiency in the generation of electricity with minimal power loss, the chief executive said.

The current high cost of producing fuel cells needs to be drastically reduced if they are to achieve mass penetration.

Membranes now cost between $1,000 to 1,500 per square meter, but carmakers say the price needs to be slashed to around $75 to be worth mass-producing. A 50-kilowatt engine needs around 12 square meters of membrane.

Weissenbacher said a price of $70 to $80 per square meter was certainly feasible, notably because BWT membranes reduced overall investment costs as they cut out various chemical processes used in conventional fuel cells.

BWT stock has far outperformed the Vienna market, racking up gains of over 120 percent since the beginning of the year while the blue-chip ATX index has slumped 9 percent.