Power Electronics

Cost Reductions to Hasten Fuel Cell Commercialization

The commercial viability of the fuel cell is heavily dependant on cost reductions that assume greater significance as worldwide concern for rapidly depleting non-renewable fossil fuels increases.

Fuel cell costs are augmented by a few factors. These systems use expensive heat-resistant materials that enable smooth functioning in very high temperatures, and they rely on precious metals such as platinum as catalysts. Moreover, conversion of available fuels to hydrogen requires expensive reformers.

"At present, it is far less expensive to use power from the grid and other traditional sources," says Technical Insights analyst Jayanthi Kamalaratnam. "Nontraditional fueling infrastructures are needed, which translate into high costs."

All fuel cells are either powered by fuels that are converted to hydrogen, or they’re powered by hydrogen itself. This appears to be an advantage, because hydrogen is an abundant element with the potential to replace fossil fuels as an energy source. Still, this element has its drawbacks. It’s expensive and currently requires high costs for storage and delivery. The infrastructure required to launch a full-scale hydrogen economy does not currently exist, and establishing a hydrogen fueling network further increases the expense of fuel cell systems.

Hydrogen is usually stored under high pressure, is relatively heavy, and doesn’t lend itself to convenient refueling. Storage in liquid form requires high energy to ensure safety. As the storage tanks are relatively large, liquid hydrogen isn’t suitable for use in automobiles. In transportation systems, converting nonhydrogen fuels, such as natural gas and ethanol, to hydrogen adds bulk and expense.

"Hydrogen storage still remains a significant challenge as the fuel has a very low energy density at normal ambient conditions, making its storage difficult in any mobile storage vessel," says Kamalaratnam. "Researchers are investigating metal hydrides and carbon nanotubes as possible solutions."

The success of fuel cells will depend on proactive consumer education and creation of awareness, as these power-producing systems are mostly used in consumer-oriented applications such as transportation systems and stationary residential and portable devices.

Consumers need to be convinced that fuel cells are capable of providing environment-friendly electricity and are highly efficient and reliable in the long term. Assurances on proper infrastructure, and having qualified, skilled personnel to provide maintenance services are likely to boost market acceptance. Reducing cost remains the key commercial and technological challenge.

New analysis by Technical Insights, a business unit of Frost & Sullivan, “Advances in Fuel Cell Technologies” details the technological breakthroughs, which will likely make an indelible mark on the future energy sector. The analysis also provides invaluable information on major market participants, technology developers, key patents, and various restraints in the commercialization of fuel cells.

Technical Insights will hold a conference call at 3 p.m. (EDT)/12 p.m. (PDT) on Sept. 4, 2003, to provide a summary and analysis of the latest developments in fuel cells. Those interested in participating in the call should e-mail Julia Paulson at [email protected] with the following information for registration: full name, company name, title, contact telephone number, contact fax number, and e-mail address. Upon receipt of the above information, a confirmation/pass code for the live briefing will be e-mailed to you.

For more information, visit www.Technical-Insights.frost.com.

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