Power Electronics

Are Fuel Cells Ready for Takeoff?

Once again we're hearing rumblings that fuel cells are poised for widespread adoption in portable electronic products and other applications. It's easy to be skeptical of these claims, given that past declarations about their readiness were premature. But it appears that, slowly, some of the technical, logistical and legal barriers that have blocked their development and commercialization are being removed. So, just maybe we can believe some of the latest projections for their pending success are not too far removed from reality.

A recent market report from The Freedonia Group makes projections about commercial fuel cell demand here in the United States for key application areas such as electric-power generation, motor vehicles, backup power supplies, military/aerospace and portable electronics. In its “Fuel Cells” report, the industry research firm states that the overall commercial demand for fuel cells in these various applications added up to $175 million in sales last year, up from $85 million in 2002. Moreover, the firm projects these same fuel cell sales will rocket to $975 million in 2012.

But as the firm points out, the outlook for fuel cells depends on the market and how the fuel cells developed for those markets compare against other energy sources. Currently, the largest market for fuel cells is electric-power generation, where molten carbonate fuel cells and solid-oxide fuel cells have achieved success. Sales of these types of fuel cells went from $36 million in 2002 to $80 million last year, with the prediction of $450 million in 2012.

Portable power electronics represent the one area of fuel cell development that has probably garned the most attention over the past several years. And as The Freedonia Group's data attests, the commercialization of these micro fuel cells is still in its infancy.

According to the firm, commercial demand for portable electronic fuel cells accounted for just $3 million in sales in 2002, but this jumped to $10 million in 2007. Note that these various figures for U.S. fuel cell spending count revenues associated with prototyping and test marketing. And most of the companies working on micro fuel cells for portable electronics are still in the prototype stage.

However, at least one vendor, Medis Technologies, has an actual micro fuel cell product for portable electronics on the market. Unlike the methanol-powered fuel cells others are developing, Medis's product employs an alkaline chemistry. Medis introduced its 24-7 Power Pack last year, making it available through online sources, with plans to offer this product through retail outlets within a month or two.

Meanwhile, others are gearing up for commercialization through continued demos of prototypes and signing of partnership and distribution agreements. For example, MTI Micro signed a distribution agreement with Duracell and plans to offer its direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) products for sale in 2009.

Though the market for these micro fuel cells is just getting started, The Freedonia Group predicts it will be the fastest growing among all the market segments. The firm forecasts $130 million in sales of portable electronics fuel cells in 2012 with the majority of sales going to DMFCs. (For more, see Data Points on page 10.)

But for this to happen, actual DMFCs and fuel cell cartridges must become readily available. Another issue is consumers must be allowed to carry and use fuel cells when they travel. That issue has been addressed in part with the recent ruling by the U.S. Department of Transportation, which will permit passengers and crew to carry methanol fuel cell cartridges and fuel cell systems on airplanes (see Data Points, page 10). However, it's unclear whether fuel cells will be approved for actual use on planes.

Clearly, there's still so much work to be done to establish fuel cells in portable electronics and other areas. Getting viable products to market with safety approvals will be a first step along with removing any remaining regulatory barriers. Ultimately, there also must be some form of standardization among fuel cells as there is with batteries. Without standard formats and specifications, fuel cell technology for mass markets just won't fly.

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