Has Fuel Cell Technology Come of Age?

Earlier this month the Department of Energy in the USA announced a $20m investment “to advance fuel cell technologies.” At the same time the US Department of Energy released an industry report that shows the fuel cell industry is continuing to grow at an unprecedented rate, totaling more than $2.2billion in sales in 2014 up from $1.3 billion in 2013. That’s 50,000 fuel cell units shipped worldwide during 2014.

During the course of my discussions with clients, I was encouraged to investigate fuel cell technologies further. I must say I was more than skeptical more than a month ago when I started looking into this emerging industry; and for good reason, especially when one considers the various criticisms of the technology by the likes of Elon Musk, chairman and CEO of General Motors, Daniel Akerson, Joseph Romm and Steven Chu.

Fuel cell technology has been around for more than a century. In a letter dated October 1838 which was published in the December 1838 edition of The London and Edinburgh Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, Welsh physicist and barrister William Grove wrote about the development of his first crude fuel cells.

More recently a company called United Technology Corporation developed the first commercially available large, stationary fuel cell system for use as a co-generation power plant in hospitals, universities and large office buildings. The company developed its products initially for NASA for the Apollo project space mission in 1966 to supply electric power and drinking water for the astronauts on board. Today Fuel Cells can be found broadly speaking in applications for transport, large stationary power and backup power for consumer devices.

Today, there are almost two dozen different types of fuel cell technologies and more than a dozen companies trying to become a world leader in supplying commercially viable fuels cells to customers. Several of these companies are even publicly traded such as Ballard Power Systems (BLDP:Nasdaq),  Toyota Motor Corporation (TM:NYSE), Plug Power (PLUG: Nasdaq), Bloom Energy, FuelCell Energy (NASDAQ:FCEL) and Intelligent Energy Holding PLC (LON:IEH) to name a few of the well established companies involved in fuel cell product development.

So where to from here? Will fuel cells achieve critical mass and scale so that it become a mainstream supplier of energy solutions to the world?

A recent discovery by British scientists Martin Owen Jones and Bill David have indicated that Ammonia is a cheaper method for solving the problems associated with transporting and managing Hydrogen. I have recently been introduced to several R&D team who are working in this direction but it is yet to be seen whether this can catapult fuel cells into the mainstream. Time will tell.

Any comments would be most appreciated. Do you believe Fuel Cell has the competitive advantage against electrochemical batteries coupled with Solar PV and/or Wind generated electricity? Is there perhaps a market segement in the multi trillion dollar energy markets where fuels cells do offer the best solution?

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