Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Nanotechnology Critical to Future $180 Billion Fuel Cell Market

The Carbon Trust launched a $12.6 million UK contest in early October 2009 to spur a breakthrough in fuel cell technology, which could open up a global fuel cell market worth over $180 billion by 2050, according to their analysis. The initiative aims to deliver the critical reduction in fuel cell system costs that must be achieved to make mass market deployment a reality. New Carbon Trust analysis shows that if substantial cuts can be achieved, the global market could be worth over $26bn in 2020 and over $180bn in 2050. The UK share of this market could be $1bn in 2020 rising to $19bn in 2050. By 2030, polymer fuel cells worldwide could be saving every year more CO2 than the UK will emit.

Nanotechnology will be critical if fuel cells are to become mass market products, according to analysis in "FUEL CELLS, HYDROGEN ENERGY AND RELATED NANOTECHNOLOGY - A GLOBAL INDUSTRY AND MARKET ANALYSIS, published by iRAP, Inc.  The fuel cell and hydrogen energy industry is highly fragmented. Worldwide, about 3,870 organizations were involved in fuel cells, hydrogen energy and related nanotechnology and spent an estimated $8.4 billion in 2008. More than 2,180 organizations are involved in nanotechnology related to fuel cells and hydrogen energy and will spend a total of $4.7 billion for fuel cells and hydrogen energy incorporating nanotechnology. Of that $4.7 billion, about $2 billion in 2008 expenditures, or 24% of the total spending, represents the value of nanotechnology for fuel cells and hydrogen energy separate from all other expenditures. The organizations are made up of well established corporations, start-up companies, universities, governments at the federal, state and municipal level, cooperative public/private demonstrations, as well as non-profit organizations and laboratories. Fuel cells and hydrogen energy is expected to reach a value of $8.8 billion in 2009 and $11.4 billion in 2014.

About 56%, or 2,180 organizations are involved in nanotechnology related to fuel cells or hydrogen. Another 1,690 organizations (44%) are involved with fuel cells and hydrogen energy but no related nanotechnology. They are involved with valves, piping, power electronics, pumps, compressors, fans and other fuel cell system parts. The 24% for nanotechnology represents the value of nanotechnology for fuel cells and hydrogen energy, while 2,180, or 56% of the companies are involved in developing nanotechnology for fuel cells.

Nanotechnology plays important roles is in all layers of a five layer fuel cell membrane electrode assembly (MEA). It is used as catalysts materials in both anodes and cathodes. Nanomaterials are also found in  membranes, gas diffusion layers (GDL)s and even in the sealant material. Nano-platinum has allowed manufacturers to increase the electrical activity of the cells and increase their durability at lower costs. 

The figure illustrates where nanomaterials are used in a fuel cell MEA, which are stacked in increasing numbers depending on how much power is needed to be produced by the final product.  The research holds two MEAs in front of a fuel cell stack. The figure also illustrates how fuel cells are parts intensive products.
(Click image to enlarge)

Component-- Function-- Nanotechnology Benefit
Membrane-- Transports hydrogen protons--Extends membrane life, improves function
Anode catalyst layer-- Strips electrons from hydrogen-- Reduces costs, improves performance, extends life
Cathode catalyst layer--oxygen reduction reaction (ORR)--Reduces costs, improves performance, extends life
Anode gas diffusion layer (GDL)--Diffuses the hydrogen fuel--Improves diffusion of gas to the anode
Cathode GDL--Diffuses oxygen--Improves diffusion of gas to the cathode
Bipolar plate---Directs the fuel to anode and cathode, respectively--Improves durability and corrosion resistance, extends life.

The Carbon Trust “Polymer Fuel Cells Challenge” aims to accelerate the commercialization of breakthrough UK technology that could see the mainstream cost effective (mass) production of polymer fuel cell powered cars and buses, as well as providing electricity and heat in homes and business. These kinds of mass market applications could be saving the UK up to 7 million tons of CO2 a year in 2050, equivalent to taking two million of today’s cars off the road.

Launching the initiative, Dr Robert Trezona, Head of Research and Development at the Carbon Trust, said: “Fuel cells have been ten years away from a real breakthrough for the past 20 years. This is a critical moment for UK fuel cell technology as emerging markets combine with technology cost breakthroughs to create a golden opportunity to launch world-beating products onto a massive global market. Our initiative aims to drive forward the commercialization of the UK’s unique fuel cell expertise which will play a crucial role in the UK’s Clean Tech Revolution both cutting carbon and creating jobs and economic value."

David Hart, Head of Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Research, Centre for Energy Policy and Technology, Imperial College, said: “For many years fuel cell and hydrogen technologies have been expected to become a cornerstone of a low-carbon, more efficient energy system, but the cost, durability and performance of current fuel cell systems remain unattractive in most applications. The Polymer Fuel Cells Challenge is an exciting opportunity to address these issues with a fresh perspective and
coordinated approach to make polymer fuel cells an everyday commercial reality.”

Current fuel cell system costs are still too high by a factor of at least ten for widespread uses. These costs could be brought down in the future through volume production, but projections show that even then, with today’s technology, costs would remain too high by 30-40% for most markets. The Polymer Fuel Cells Challenge will aim to support those breakthroughs that will allow high-volume costs to come down by 35%, making fuel cell systems attractive for mass markets. The U.S. Department of Energy goal for fuel cells is a cost of $600 per kilowatt.

Fuel cells efficiently convert the chemical energy contained in a fuel directly into electricity – they produce electricity like a battery but are fuelled like an engine or a boiler. Fuel cells are already marketed around the world, with sales growing at over 60% a year – they are used to power forklift trucks, mobile phone masts or provide power in camper vans. However, they currently remain too expensive to be more widespread.

One application where fuel cells have proven to be more cost effective and technologically superiorj to lead acid batteries is in the $12 billion back-up power market. The fact is evidenced by PT. Hutchison CP Telecommunications (HCPT) recent selection of PT CONSISTEL Indonesia as its partner to deploy 200 units of Spiro hydrogen fuel cell in Java, Sumatra and Bali region of Indonesia.

However not all is smooth sailing. Ballard Power Systems Inc. (TSX:BLD) said its joint venture with IdaTech LLC and Acme Group has hit a technical snag that will delay completing a contract for them to provide thousands of backup power systems for wireless networks in India. Ballard said the hydrogen system it developed for the project successfully passed product acceptance testing in July, but said the delay comes from the natural gas system provided by IdaTech.

IdaTech informed Ballard that the system would likely miss the product acceptance testing deadline of Oct. 16. IdaTech can obtain a six-month extension on the testing deadline provided it is able to outline an acceptable plan by Nov. 16. Ballard said product volumes would be adjusted if the delay takes place.

While disappointed by the delay, Atul Sabharwal, Chief Operating Officer, Acme Group said, "Acme …feels as strongly as ever that a substantial market opportunity exists for fuel cells in wireless telecom backup power and other applications in India, where reliable, cost-effective and environmentally-friendly solutions are greatly needed.” The company remains “excited about the potential for Ballard's low-cost, fuel cell stack."


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