Fuel cells have been a 'next big thing' technology for as long as anyone can remember. Joe McEntee investigates when these versatile power sources will reach high-volume markets

Fuel cells have been a ’next big thing’ technology for as long as anyone can remember. Joe McEntee investigates when these versatile power sources will reach high-volume markets

The world has a problem - one that is certain to get worse before it gets better. From Los Angeles to Bangkok, our cities are choking on vehicle emissions. Centralised electricity grids are creaking under the strain as demand surges. National security and economic wellbeing remain intimately tied to Middle East oil and all the attendant political baggage that comes with that interdependence. What’s more, the energy crunch is intensifying and globalising as the economies of China and India continue on their fast-track growth trajectories.    

Clearly, with the world’s addiction to non-sustainable carbon based fuels intensifying, the heat is well and truly on to come up with alternative energy technologies that don’t pump out huge quantities of carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere.    

Fuel cell car

Right up there on the list of alternatives are hydrogen power and fuel cells. The end game -that of fuel cells as the logical successor to the internal combustion engine - is a compelling one. But the vision is one thing, reality quite another, and any discussion of the volume roll-out of automotive fuel cells needs to be qualified by a timeframe measured in decades rather than years. Cost, durability, maintainability and the not insubstantial issue of hydrogen-fuelling infrastructure (or rather the absence of it) are the most likely show stoppers in the near to medium term.   

Encouraging outlook   

Yet if automotive fuel cells are in the slow lane (for now), the outlook is more encouraging in other areas, where fuel cell technology is on track to make those all-important commercial breakthroughs sooner rather than later. Specifically, the most promising early stage markets for fuel cells appear to be taking shape in stationary power systems (domestic and small-scale industrial), military power sources for the infantry soldier, and consumer electronic devices.   

Fuel cells are attractive on a number of levels. For starters, they have the potential to deliver significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, especially if the hydrogen fuel is produced via sustainable pathways. Second, fuel cells powered by pure hydrogen emit no harmful pollutants - although they do emit small amounts of pollutants if a primary fuel such as natural gas first has to be reformed to generate hydrogen. Finally, fuel cells are a lot more efficient compared with combustion based power generation schemes. A conventional combustion based power plant typically generates electricity at efficiencies of 33 to 35 per cent, while in a fuel cell plant that figure is up to 60 per cent. And when fuel cell systems are used to generate electricity and heat - a process known as cogeneration - they can reach efficiencies of up to 85 per cent.   

Stationary power on the move   

For a nation that’s been built upon technological innovation, it’s perhaps not surprising to find Japan gearing up for what’s being billed as the first true commercial introduction of fuel cell systems on a nationwide basis. Over the next 12 months, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has committed $23 million (approx ?13 million) to product introduction subsidies slated for the installation of 400 fuel cell cogeneration systems in Japanese homes. That’s just for starters. By 2010, METI has set a target of 1.2 million fuel cell cogeneration units deployed in homes across Japan - a total of 1.2GW of distributed generating power. Although impressive, that still only represents around two per cent penetration of the country’s 47 million households, leaving plenty of room for longer term market growth.   

The Japanese cogeneration model will see 1kW fuel cell systems installed directly in consumers’ homes and simultaneously generating electricity and hot water. The unique value proposition of fuel cell cogeneration for Japan is that it reduces dependency on grid based power in a country with some of the world’s highest electricity prices. It’s a win-win scenario: the customers save money, while the use of fuel cell technology reduces carbon dioxide emissions by up to 40 per cent compared with conventional electricity generation using fossil fuels.   

So why now? And why cogeneration? Think of it as an irresistible force (rising demand for energy in the residential and commercial sectors) meeting an immovable object (a national energy policy that’s focused on sustainability, energy independence and Kyoto Protocol targets for greenhouse gas emissions). Put simply, the government is putting fuel cell cogeneration at the heart of its long-term energy plans, and within that context is committing significant subsidies to fast-track the creation of a domestic cogeneration market. Overall, the METI budget for fuel-cell development activities increased from $111 million in 2001 to $338 million in 2005.   

Government push is all good and well, but there’s serious market pull as well. Gas and oil companies are buying into cogeneration in a big way, with cast-iron commitments to launch products that they believe will give them an edge over the electricity companies in Japan’s fiercely competitive energy market. ’With cogen [cogeneration], there is a huge environmental benefit that the electricity companies can’t compete with,’ explained John Harris, managing director, Asia-Pacific at Ballard Power Systems, a Canadian fuel cell development company. ’In addition, the gas companies see it as a great way to increase the flow of gas to the customer base, to make more money, and [better] compete with the electricity companies.’   

For its part, Ballard appears to be well positioned to capitalise on Japan’s nascent market for fuel cell cogeneration. Ebara Ballard, the group’s Tokyo based joint venture with Ebara Corporation of Japan, has a remit to develop and manufacture fuel cell power generators (incorporating Ballard fuel cells) to Japanese customers. Within that remit, the company has been working closely with Tokyo Gas, the largest natural gas company in Japan, and Nippon Oil, the leading Japanese oil company, to develop 1kW domestic cogeneration systems - based, not surprisingly, on Ballard’s polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cell technology.   

In terms of the customer base, Tokyo Gas is selling natural gas fuelled cogeneration systems sourced from two preferred suppliers: Ebara Ballard and Panasonic. Nippon Oil, meanwhile, is selling liquid petroleum gas systems provided solely by Sanyo (though next year it will launch a kerosene fuelled unit supplied exclusively by Ebara Ballard). In each case, the government subsidy to the power company runs to $57,000 per system (to cover capital and installation costs). Many other energy companies are participating in residential cogeneration trials.   

Over the next three years, the priorities for fuel cell system developers and energy companies are clear. First, and most important, is to demonstrate further cost reductions as volumes grow and production economies kick in. Second is to ramp current levels of durability - around 15,000h for stack and system lifetime. The ultimate goal, and one that all fuel cell suppliers to the METI project are required to hit, is consistent stack/system lifetimes of around 10 years, roughly equivalent to the lifetime of a typical domestic appliance in Japan.   

Harris added: ’The ’hockeystick’ curve [in deployment] is really going to be post-2008, because that is the point at which the industry is required to have that 40,000h lifetime in shape. That’s when true commercialisation begins. Today in our laboratory at Ballard we have a stack that has been running for 27,000h and continues to log hours. Based on our technology experience and all of the data from our field trials, we’re 100 per cent confident that we’re going to be able to hit 40,000 h [stack] lifetime by 2008.’   

Battle hardened?    

Another of the first-movers on fuel cells is the military. As armed forces the world over become more and more sophisticated, advanced electronic devices such as night vision goggles, global positioning systems and laser targeting are becoming essential tools in the combat zone. There’s just one snag: demand for all this electronic gadgetry is outstripping the supply and capabilities of portable battery packs.    

MTI Micro Fuel Cells, a specialist developer of micro fuel cell systems headquartered in Albany, New York, US, believes that the military will be among the first to buy large numbers of portable fuel cells, citing a ’clear value proposition’ for replacing the BA-5590 primary (disposable) lithium battery. The battery is the most commonly used by the US Army for powering radios and other portable electronic devices.    

’If a fuel cell system packaged into the same box could deliver, for sake of argument, 50-100 per cent more energy content than the BA-5590, while meeting the same peak and average power requirements, this has the chance to be sold like hot cakes,’ claims Shimshon Gottesfeld, MTI Micro’s chief technology officer. ’We have had lots of conversations with people in various corners of the military and it does seem that prolonging the use time - or mission duration in military parlance - with a similar package would be very welcome.’   

Despite the stringent performance challenges, it appears that the overall requirements of the military market are a good fit with the direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC), a system in which methanol fuel is electro-oxidised directly, without any preprocessing, to generate electrical power. Gottesfeld explains that the ease of refuelling offered by DMFCs is attractive to the army, adding that ’the logistics of supplying power [with DMFCs] is facilitated because you are shipping cartridges of methanol instead of the complete battery’. As well as being lighter and more compact than the batteries they replace, fuel cartridges can be exchanged in a ’hot swap’ scenario, which means that the fuel cell powered device can operate while it is being refuelled.   

The way things stand now, it seems that the uptake of fuel cell systems will be influenced less by technological issues and more by budget cycles and the fact that the US military is at war, which may move attention away from developing long-term alternatives for portable power.    

In any case, Gottesfeld points out that while the military represents a compelling opportunity for high-volume sales in the short term, the big prize longer term still lies in the consumer electronics market. ’We are keeping our eyes on that prize,’ he added.    

Fuel cells in a mobile market    

The question is: are fuel cells on the verge of delivering that prize? They could be, at least if the world’s leading consumer electronics manufacturers get their way. Heavyweight players such as Sony, Toshiba and Motorola are investing serious R&D dollars on commercialising DMFCs. They’re betting that the payback will be a next generation power source that revolutionises the performance and ease of use of all sorts of portable electronic gadgets - mobile phones, laptop computers, video cameras and plenty more besides.    

Portable electronics

© Nokia

The stakes are indeed high. Jim Balcom, president and chief executive officer of PolyFuel, a US based developer of fuel cell membranes, believes that micro fuel cells, intended to power the next generation of portable electronic devices, will be the key technical and economical driver for the entire fuel-cell market - including stationary and automotive applications.    

’The future market leaders in fuel cells will likely be those companies that aggressively participate today in the development, manufacturing and marketing of small, portable fuel cells for mobile applications,’ Balcom told a gathering of industry experts at the Ninth Grove Fuel Cell Symposium, held in London, UK, at the beginning of October last year. He continued: ’Those companies that wait it out, or focus their energies on the more technologically challenging but less immediate segments, such as stationary power or automotive applications, will literally miss the boat, even in their own segments.’   

Balcom believes that the same powerful processes that have given us 50 million transistor computer chips and 300Gb hard disk drives will be at work in the portable fuel cell industry in the coming years. ’The flow of money into the portable segment will be profound,’ he argued, ’and that will drive R&D at a rate that will yield the familiar exponential drops in price, matched by exponential increases in product performance. Advances will be made - continuously and at an increasing rate - in every imaginable aspect of fuel cell designs, materials and processes. That will significantly raise the level of price performance for all fuel cell categories.’   

Balcom’s remarks were echoed by another speaker at the symposium. James Wilkie, a director at Johnson Matthey Fuel Cells in Swindon, UK, stated that DMFCs were strong contenders to be ’first’ to market, and that they would have spin-off benefits for automotive and stationary applications.    

The logic here has not been overlooked by the key industry players, who are jumping on board to develop micropower fuel cell systems, claimed Balcom. ’Fujitsu, Hitachi, IBM, LG, NEC, Samsung, Sanyo, Sharp, Sony, and Toshiba, among others, have publicly acknowledged that they are actively working on systems.’    

It’s all about delivery   

So far, so encouraging. The fact is, however, that the fuel cell industry, like many emerging technology markets, has over the years witnessed its fair share of exaggerated speculation, unrealistic expectations and, inevitably, the loss of confidence that follows when investors, policy makers and the business media realise that all is not as they were led to believe.    

At the end of the day, wide-scale commercialisation is a numbers game and developers will prosper or perish based on how they fare against metrics such as durability, reliability, cost and, most brutal of all, profitability. It’s time to start delivering.   

Joe McEntee is editor of The Fuel Cell Review

Fuel cell fundamentals

It is worth revisiting a few of the fundamentals of the underlying technology and the chemistry that makes it tick.  

A fuel cell is a device that uses hydrogen (or a hydrogen-rich fuel such as methanol) and oxygen to create electricity via an electrochemical process. A single fuel cell consists of an electrolyte and two catalyst-coated electrodes (a porous anode and cathode).  

Fuel cell fundamentals

While there are different fuel cell types, all work on the same principle: hydrogen, or a hydrogen-rich fuel, is fed to the anode where a catalyst separates hydrogen into electrons and protons.  

At the cathode, oxygen combines with electrons and, in some cases, with species such as protons or water, resulting in water or hydroxide ions, respectively. Electrons from the anode side of the cell cannot pass through the electrolyte to the positively charged cathode; they must travel around it via an electrical circuit to reach the other side of the cell.  

The voltage generated by a single fuel cell in this way is quite small. To produce an output that’s usable in practical applications, many cells have to be connected in series - an arrangement known as a fuel cell stack.