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Feul Cells/Business/Fuel Cells Update 051118
From Fuel Cells 2005..
Fuel Cells Continue to Evolve
by Shirley and Donald Georgi
After a decade of promises, fuel cell soothsayers may be tiring of being asked, “What’s new?” or worse, “When are those fuel cells going to hit volume manufacturing?”.   If these questions were not asked directly, the possibility for answers was certainly on the minds of the attendees, and to some extent, responses were given with specific examples in the presentations.

The topic of automotive fuel cells was defined as a futuristic goal.  All other applications such as stationary and portable power will arrive before transportation applications.  Emphasis was on the convenience aspect of being able to refuel a notebook computer with twenty small cartridges while on a worldwide trip and providing a remote power source without stringing grid electric at a million dollars a mile.  

The fuel cell application in the consumer automotive sector does not have current enticements.  Its future potential is in a battle with a  well established  gas and diesel fuel/distribution infrastructure in place and a proven IC engine with 100 years of development optimization and reliability.  The question (“Why would consumers want to exchange their current vehicles for fuel cell-powered vehicles at great expense?”) still needs to be answered.  

On new ‘spin’ in the worldwide fuel cell community revolves around the emergence of the country of Armenia  as a provider of high tech R&D services. Prior to the demise of the Soviet Union, Armeania was a technological center for the development of nuclear weapons and related technologies. To capitalize on the technological capabilities in a peacetime environment, Armenia has chosen to focus its   excellence  in research and development to become a ‘Silicon Valley’ for fuel cell programs.  Pictured above are the Fuel Cell 2005 keynote speakers, Agassy Mannoukian, the President of H2 ECOnomy (left) and John Turner (right), who introduced the concept which would allow the Armenian high tech  capability  with its low cost environment to promote and produce fuel cells in a global marketplace.  When the environmentally friendly fuel  are cost effective, oil technology can be replaced. (Staff Photo) +


If one thinks back to presentations made less than a decade ago, fuel cells  were going to displace dirty combustion engines in every application with or without a hydrogen economy, thus creating a green planet and cleaner and  fresher air.  Today, reality has set in and the presenters at Fuel Cells 2005 had messages which targeted niche markets where not only the greener aspects of fuel cells could be experienced but also the applications could become  true economic advantages. Examples of such niche markets involve fuel cell power in remote Alaskan villages and also in mid-town New York City; in either situation, stringing new grid connectors is not an economically feasible option.


One niche market, discussed in four separate papers, centered on replacing the battery  operation of forklifts with fuel cells.  This has been a market controlled by the Lead-acid industry.  Lead-acid batteries are inexpensive in comparison to fuel cells, so market promoters of fuel cells  need to build a case for why a change from battery to fuel cell power is  warranted  to enhance  productivity while yet maintaining and improving costs.  Factors being promoted in favor of fuel cells are: operator labor (downtime for operator while batteries are being changed or charged), labor for watering batteries,  extra facility  space for storing and charging batteries, and number of trucks required due to the time lost  in rapid charging of batteries. Fuel cell proponents hope to show  a business model that demonstrates cuts in costs, especially in labor.  The bottom line is to create a value proposition for fuel cell-powered forklifts dominated by productivity improvements.
Special fleets - buses

Transit buses are considered an exceptional opportunity for large scale hydrogen implementation, and ultimately fuel cells.  These city buses are touted as an ideal for hydrogen  implementation because they have the capacity to carry 30 - 60 kg of hydrogen; thus ranges over 300 miles are attainable. Although the vehicles are expensive, the cost is amortized favorably over a large base of hours used, perhaps up to 16 hours/day. As Paul Scott from ISE Corporationn said it is the most “bang for the buck” in hydrogen- fueled transport.  Early models have been the HHICE (Hybrid drive Hydrogen fueled ICE engine) which can be cost competetive with diesel and can   serve to bridge to a fuel cell-powered future.

ICE Corporation and Thor Industries built the first fuel cell bus which was in revenue service at Sunline Transit in the Palm Springs area in California.  The bus was equipped with a UTC’s (United Technology Corporation’s)   fuel cells  - specifically  60kW PEM fuel cells.  The fuel cell subsystem operates at over 50% net efficiency and the battery hybrid drive system improves efficiency by about 30 percent. This bus achieved 9.8 MPEG (miles per equivalent of gasoline) when operated in the Palm Springs service. Although this bus has performed well,  there are still specific needs for further engineering, and costs to build such a bus are still exorbitant.  But time is on the side of fuel cell system developers for buses.   The Department of Energy  is scheduled to  give their decision in ten years (2015) on a “go or no-go” for commercialization  of fuel cell buses

When Will the Fuel Cell Come to Fruition?

Since there is no one perfect answer for  this question,  perhaps a better question that fit the presentation would have been - “What is the progression of fuel cells entering into specific markets?” The information given by Charles Pimental of Plug Power discussed a relative time line beginning with the portable electronics category, from the early  part of this 21st century to 20XX for the automotive sector.  In referencing the market timing and industry cost curve for fuel cells, he discussed the early adaptors and innovators (i.e., labs, universities and some small utilities), followed by industry buying backup and standby units for intermittent power. Allied closely  with the timing of the intermittent power markets are the remote stationary markets where fuel cells can be the perfect solution when no grid is available.  As these markets gain a solid foothold,  fuel cells can expand their  usage for peak shaving, relieving some of the heavy demands on the grid.  

Although the initial innovators  are building and have  built systems with costs ranging   $10,000/kW and upward, it is hoped that by the time fuel cell  systems  have proven their worth in  remote stationary power, the production costs would be down  and could be competitive for developers to begin to install  residential CHP (combined heat and power) units.  The system cost at this point should hopefully be  inching down from the $1,000/kW level. Several speakers emphasized that for consumers to  accept fuel cell power, it must be cost competitive or cheaper than other sources such as the grid.  

With success in these areas, stationary mass markets should follow, and although there may be a gap in time, the automotive sector may begin to “take hold” when system costs are under $100kW.

So when will fuel cells be ready for prime time?  Plug Power’s summarized its  answers at the conference  by saying,     “Mass commercialization won’t happen until costs come down  and product life goes up.  Early adapters are still few.  Research is moving in many different directions.  If this refrain sounds familiar, it should.  It was true of microelectronics three decades ago.  It is true of fuel cells today.”  

The Fuel Cells 2005 conference was orchestrated by Webcom Communication with special credit to editor, Shannon Given.