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The concept of a fuel cell had effectively been demonstrated in the early nineteenth century by Humphry Davy. This was followed by pioneering work on what were to become fuel cells by the scientist Christian Friedrich Schönbein in 1838. William Grove, a chemist, physicist and lawyer, is generally credited with inventing the fuel cell in 1839. Grove conducted a series of experiments with what he termed a gas voltaic battery, which ultimately proved that electric current could be produced from an electrochemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen over a platinum catalyst. The term fuel cell was first used in 1889 by Charles Langer and Ludwig Mond, who researched fuel cells using coal gas as a fuel. Further attempts to convert coal directly into electricity were made in the early twentieth century but the technology generally remained obscure.

In 1932, Cambridge engineering professor Francis Bacon modified Mond’s and Langer’s equipment to develop the first AFC but it was not until 1959 that Bacon demonstrated a practical 5 kW fuel cell system. At around the same time, Harry Karl Ihrig fitted a modified 15 kW Bacon cell to an Allis-Chalmers agricultural tractor. Allis-Chalmers, in partnership with the US Air Force, subsequently developed a number of fuel cell powered vehicles including a forklift truck, a golf cart and a submersible vessel.


The Space Program

In the late 1950s and early 1960s NASA, in collaboration with industrial partners, began developing fuel cell generators for manned space missions. The first PEMFC unit was one result of this, with Willard Thomas Grubb at General Electric (GE) credited with the invention. Another GE researcher, Leonard Niedrach, refined Grubb’s PEMFC by using platinum as a catalyst on the membranes. The Grubb-Niedrach fuel cell was further developed in cooperation with NASA and was used in the Gemini space programme of the mid-1960s.

International Fuel Cells (IFC, later UTC Power) developed a 1.5 kW AFC for use in the Apollo space missions. The fuel cell provided electrical power as well as drinking water for the astronauts for the duration of their mission. IFC subsequently developed a 12 kW AFC, used to provide onboard power on all space shuttle flights.

While the research was continuing on fuel cells in the West, in the Soviet Union fuel cells were being developed for military applications. Although much of this early work is still secret, it did result in fuel cells being used to provide onboard power to a submarine and later to the Soviet manned space program.

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The Seventies

The 1970s saw the emergence of increasing environmental awareness amongst governments, businessesand individuals. Prompted by concerns over air pollution, clean air legislation was passed in the United States and Europe. This ultimately mandated the reduction of harmful vehicle exhaust gases and was eventually adopted in many countries around the world. The 1970s was also the era of the OPEC oil embargoes, which led governments, businesses and consumers to embrace the concept of energy efficiency. Clean air and energy efficiency were to become two of the principal drivers for fuel cell adoption in subsequent decades, in addition to the more recent concerns about climate change and energy security.

Earlier, General Motors had experimented with its hydrogen fuel cell powered Electrovan fitted with a Union Carbide fuel cell. Although the project was limited to demonstrations, it marked one of the earliest road-going fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV). From the mid-1960s, Shell was involved with developing DMFC, where the use of liquid fuel was considered to be a great advantage for vehicle applications. Concerns over oil availability in the 1970s led to the development of a number of one-off demonstration fuel cell vehicles, including models powered by hydrogen or ammonia, as well as of hydrogen-fuelled internal combustion engines. Several German, Japanese and US vehicle manufacturers and their partners began to experiment with FCEV in the 1970s, increasing the power density of PEMFC stacks and developing hydrogen fuel storage systems. By the end of the century, all the world’s major carmakers had active FCEV demonstration fleets as a result of these early efforts. The focus by then had shifted back to pure hydrogen fuel, which generates zero harmful tailpipe emissions.

Prompted by concerns over energy shortages and higher oil prices, many national governments and large companies initiated research projects to develop more efficient forms of energy generation in the 1970s. One result of this was important advances in PAFC technology, in particular in stability and performance. There were significant field demonstrations of large stationary PAFC units for prime, off-grid power in the 1970s, including a 1 MW unit developed by IFC. Funding from the US military and electrical utilities enabled developments in MCFC technology, such as the internal reforming of natural gas to hydrogen. The use of an established natural gas infrastructure was a key advantage in developing fuel cells for large stationary prime power applications.


The Eighties

Substantial technical and commercial development continued in the 1980s, notably in the area of PAFC. A bright future for the technology was widely predicted around this time for stationary applications and buses. Ambitious conceptual designs were published for municipal utility power plant applications of up to 100 MW output. Predictions of tens of thousands of units in operation by the end of the century were made, but only hundreds were to actually appear by that date. Several experimental large stationary PAFC plants were built, but saw little commercial traction in the 1980s. With subsequent advancements in membrane durability and system performance, PAFC were rolled out in greater numbers almost two decades later for large-scale combined heat and power applications.

Also in the 1980s, research, development and demonstration (RD&D) work continued into the use of fuel cells for transport applications. The US Navy commissioned studies into the use of fuel cells in submarines where highly efficient, zero-emission, near-silent running offered considerable operational advantages. In 1983 the Canadian company Ballard began research into fuel cells, and was to become a major player in the manufacture of stacks and systems for stationary and transport applications in later years.

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The Nineties

Attention turned to PEMFC and SOFC technology in the 1990s, particularly for small stationary applications. These were seen as offering a more imminent commercial possibility, due to the lower cost per unit and greater number of potential markets – for example backup power for telecoms sites and residential micro-CHP. In Germany, Japan and the UK, there began to be significant government funding devoted to developing PEMFC and SOFC technology for residential micro-CHP applications.

Government policies to promote clean transport also helped drive the development of PEMFC for automotive applications. In 1990, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) introduced the Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) Mandate. This was the first vehicle emissions standard in the world predicated not on improvements to the internal combustion engine (ICE) but on the use of alternative powertrains. Carmakers such as the then-DaimlerChrysler, General Motors, and Toyota, all of which had substantial sales in the US, responded to this by investing in PEMFC research. Companies other than automakers, such as Ballard, continued PEMFC research for automotive and stationary clean power. Ballard went on to supply PEMFC units to Daimler and Ford. The programmes initiated in the 1990s still continue, albeit with some changes to the strategic focus of some key players.

Significant advances in DMFC technology occurred around the same time, as PEMFC technology was adapted for direct methanol portable devices. Early applications included portable soldier-borne power and power for devices such as laptops and mobile phones. MCFC technology, first developed in the 1950s, made substantial commercial advances in the 1990s, in particular for large stationary applications in which it was sold by companies such as FuelCell Energy and MTU. SOFC technology also underwent substantial developments in terms of power density and durability for stationary applications. Boosted by general optimism in high-technology industries, many fuel cell companies listed on stock exchanges in the late 1990s, only for prices to fall victim to the crash in technology stocks shortly after.


The New Millenium

The last decade was characterised by increasing concerns on the part of governments, business and consumers over energy security, energy efficiency, and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Attention has turned once again to fuel cells as one of several potential technologies capable of delivering energy efficiency and CO2 savings while reducing dependence on fossil fuels.

Government and private funding for fuel cell research has increased markedly in the last decade. There has been a renewed focus on fundamental research to achieve breakthroughs in cost reduction and operational performance to make fuel cells competitive with conventional technology. A good deal of government funding worldwide has also been targeted at fuel cell demonstration and deployment projects. The European Union, Canada, Japan, South Korea, and the United States are all engaged in high-profile demonstration projects, primarily of stationary and transport fuel cells and their associated fuelling infrastructure. The genuine benefits that fuel cell technology offers over conventional technologies has played a part in promoting adoption. For example, the value proposition that fuel cell materials handling vehicles offer in terms of extended run-time, greater efficiency and simplified refuelling infrastructure compared with their battery counterparts makes them attractive to warehouse operators. Tens of fuel cell buses were deployed in the mid-2000s as part of the HyFleet/CUTE project in Europe, China and Australia. Buses were, and still are, seen as a promising early market application of fuel cells due to their combination of high efficiency, zero-emissions and ease of refuelling, and due to the vehicles running on set routes and being regularly refuelled with hydrogen at their bases.

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Fuel Cells Commercialize

Fuel cells began to become commercial in a variety of applications in 2007, when they started to be sold to end-users with written warranties and service capability, and met the codes and standards of the markets in which they were sold. As such, a number of market segments became demand driven, rather than being characterised by oversupply and overcapacity. In particular, thousands of PEMFC and DMFC auxiliary power units (APU) were commercialised in leisure applications, such as boats and campervans, with similarly large numbers of micro fuel cell units being sold in the portable sector in toys and educational kits. Demand from the military also saw hundreds of DMFC and PEMFC portable power units put into service for infantry soldiers, where they provided power to communications and surveillance equipment and reduced the burden on the dismounted solider of carrying heavy battery packs.

A large-scale residential CHP programme in Japan helped stimulate commercial stationary PEMFC shipments. These units began to be installed in homes from 2009, and more than 13,000 such units have been installed to date. Demonstration programmes for backup power systems in the USA gave further impetus to the stationary sector. This was also driven by practical concerns over the need for reliable backup power for telecoms networks during emergencies and rescue operations. The inadequacy of diesel generators was illustrated during the Gulf of Mexico Hurricane Katrina disaster, when many ran out of fuel, disrupting the telecoms network and hampering relief efforts. The need for reliable on-grid or off-grid stationary power in developing countries also gave a boost to fuel cells. In the late 2000s, hydrogen and natural gas fuelled PEMFC units began to be sold in parts of India and east Africa to provide primary or backup power to mobile phone masts. The rapidity of mobile phone adoption in these regions means that the conventional grid infrastructure cannot keep pace with new power demands, or is too unreliable for an effective mobile network. Fuel cells provide a solution to this previously unmet need.

In transport applications, the greatest commercial activity occurred in the materials handling segment, where there is a strong business case for their use in place of the incumbent technology, lead acid batteries. Funding for demonstration fleets of fuel cell materials handling vehicles saw increasing numbers deployed in warehouses across the USA, although the overall numbers remained small compared with those for stationary and portable fuel cells. Fuel cell buses have been commercially available for several years and their usefulness has been well demonstrated. However their cost, at around five times that of a diesel bus, plus the cost of hydrogen infrastructure means that they are only used where a city deems the environmental benefit to be worth the extra investment. Fuel cell cars are currently only available for lease; these vehicles are being made available by manufacturers to gain experience ahead of a commercial launch planned from 2015.

In the past decade, PEMFC and DMFC have dominated the total market share in the portable, stationary and transport sectors. Their uptake by consumers has been facilitated by the development of codes, standards and government policies to lower the barriers to adoption; such as allowing methanol fuel cartridges on board aircraft and feed-in tariffs for fuel cell CHP installations.


Recent Developments

Over the last five years, as shown in the data tables in this Review, growth in shipments of fuel cells has accelerated rapidly as various applications have become commercial. Portable fuel cells saw the most rapid rate of growth over the period since 2009 as increasing numbers of fuel cell educational kits were sold to consumers. This genuine commercial market generated much-needed revenue for several key players and has allowed those companies to invest in research into larger stationary and transport applications. The portable sector has also been boosted by shipments of APU products for the leisure market, in particular camping and boating. Shipments in the portable sector were also augmented by the launch of Toshiba’s Dynario fuel cell battery charger in 2009. On a limited production run of 3,000, demand for the Dynario far outstripped supply. Stationary fuel cell adoption has increased rapidly as the roll-out of the Japanese Ene-Farm project took place and fuel cells for uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) were adopted in North America.

The supply chain has also been steadily growing alongside the increase in the number of fuel cell system manufacturers. There has been an expansion of the component supply chain and related services, from the manufacturers of MEA to fuel and infrastructure providers. Manufacturing capacity has tended to increase more rapidly than output. This is particularly true in North America, one of the leading regions for fuel cell manufacturing.

The global economic recession of the late 2000s undoubtedly had negative effects for certain fuel cell companies. Limited credit availability and restrictions in government funding, as well as lack of profitability for organisations that were still mainly RD&D focused, caused a number of firms to go out of business. However, it gave other companies the impetus to become more commercially orientated and to pursue opportunities for revenue generation that could support further R&D in their core competencies. Since the recession, governments around the world have come to see fuel cells as a promising area of future economic growth and job creation and have invested further resources in their development, something fuel cell companies have not been slow to capitalise on. As many Western countries seek to rebalance their economies towards high-value manufacturing and environmental technologies, fuel cells seem poised to enter a period of sustained growth.

The fuel cell industry has faced and continues to face challenges as it comes through a period of recession and completes the transition from R&D to commercialisation. On the whole, it has survived extremely difficult circumstances. Although many fuel cell companies are still far from being profitable, the opportunities for growth in the future are very promising. The success of certain application segments in recent years means that there has been a move to consolidate particular technologies into a standard reference design for a particular type of fuel cell. This has led to fuel cells increasingly being developed as scalable energy solutions capable of serving several different market segments, be they APU or to power devices such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).

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Source: Fuel Cell Today (www.fuelcelltoday.com)