Whispers about fuel cells are generating increasing buzz which appears about to roar. A short cut to producing Hydrogen using a natural process when water reacts with temperature, pressure and an olivine, a common type of rock, has been reported by a researcher at a French University. The addition of aluminum oxide has been found to greatly accelerate this process. What if this found to be scalable and commerciable?
Plug Power, maker of fuel cell system for industrial trucks, such as forklifts, is set to explode with orders. Plug's CEO, Andrew Marsh, talks of recurring revenue, profits and a clear road map PlugPower has ridden the ups and downs of the fuel cell waves. Is 2014 truly the time for a tipping point?
Until this year, fuel cell patents vastly outperformed any other sector according to the Clean Energy Patent Growth Index. On a cumulative basis since 2002, fuel cell patent more than doubled the nearest competitor, wind. Even with a recent surge by solar patents (more to come in an upcoming year end edition of Clean Energy Patent Growth Index), fuel cell patents dwarf the other cleantech sectors as depicted below:
The often forgotten stationary fuel cells, largely used to generate electricity for large buildings and businesses, continue to chug along. Bloom Energy has put 100 megawatts into service (e.g., Ebay uses Bloom fuel cells for one of its data centers) over 12 years while its competitor, FuelCell Energy, has tripled that amount according to Forbes even nearing completion on the world's largest fuel cell park in South Korea. These stationary cells are largely fed now by natural gas or renewable biogas, but the process discovered by the mentioned French researcher could change all that.
Car companies, including Toyota and Honda, plan on new fuel cell cars by 2015. Hyundai has plans for a fuel cell SUV early in 2014. Even with the proliferation of pure battery electric vehicles, fuel cell cars have an attraction because they can be refilled more rapidly than a battery can be recharged using current technology. Although car manufacturers have been big promoters of fuel cells in cars and big patent holders as indicated below, EV maker Tesla has different ideas, with its CEO referring to fuel cell cars in less than flattering terms.
As indicated by Paul Mutolo of Cornell in this article, hydrogen fuel cells provide an advantage over battery-only EV's in that there are no worries about running out of charge . . . in contrast to BEV's and smart phones everywhere . . . and little time spent refueling. Pollution isn't a problem either as only water vapor is emitted. Of course that fuel cell car is going to need a place to get its hydrogen and unlike a battery EV, there is no ready supply at residences everywhere . . . but there are also companies working on that with a map of hydrogen refueling stations located here.
After a late start, it appears that fuel cells may have joined the race to see what will power cars of the future. On the bright side for the automakers even if fuel cells overtake hybrid or electric vehicles all the research put into these vehicles (see HEV patents below) will not likely go to waste as even though powered by hydrogen, fuel cell vehicles generate electricity which then goes into the same electric motors and components already running the HEV's on the road.
Are fuel cells about to replace batteries in electric vehicles, or to advance distributed electrical energy production in the same way that the bottoming out of solar panel prices appears to be doing? A lot depends on advances such as the new way of producing hydrogen discovered in France and whether the research behind all the fuel cell patents bears further fruit. Victor Cardona (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Industry Spotlight - CLEANTECH. This is one in an occasional series of articles of relevance to an industry specific to one of our practice groups and authored by a professional in the relevant practice group. For more information about our Cleantech Practice Group please see www.cleantechintellectualproperty.com.