Renewed faith in fuel cells

C&I Issue 23, 2011

Data from the European Patent Office, show that fuel cell patent applications, between 1998 and 2007, accounted for 23% – 3381 in total – of all energy-related applications, by far the largest share of all clean technology. The average annual growth in applications, though less than that of wind technology, was twice that of solar photovoltaics at a time of massive development in this sector.

Growth in fuel cell technology from 2001–10, was even more impressive, amounting to 4940 applications. Although there have been a few ups and downs during this period, the total number of applications by 2010 was nearly double that of the previous decade.

Development takes time

Despite these impressive figures, however, fuel cells are not a household name. Relatively few patent applications have been translated into widespread commercial success thus far. ‘They aren’t available in consumer applications – but fuel cells are [becoming] commercial,’ remarks Nigel Brandon, director of the Energy Futures Lab at Imperial College London, UK.

The top innovators in the field are in Japan, the US and Germany. Japanese car manufacturers Honda, Toyota and Nissan have the highest number of patents. In Germany, the leaders are car manufacturer Daimler; technology company Siemens; and Forschungszentrum Juelich, a specialist energy, environment and health research centre. In the US, General Motors; UTC Power, a company specialising in fuel cell applications; and 3M hold the highest number of patents in fuel cell technology.

Clearly, automotive research is driving a great deal of this innovation. Yet some years ago, before Canadian company Ballard Power Systems was taken over by Daimler and Ford, fuel cells in the automotive sector were frequently described as a lost cause. Ballard pulled out of the hydrogen vehicle sector, and some governments around the world, including the US, cut funding in fuel cell research.

Despite this, several major equipment manufacturers continued to put a lot of time and effort, as well substantial investment, into fuel cell technology. Christian Mohrdieck, director of fuel cell and battery drive systems development at Daimler comments: ‘I am surprised there was so little electrocatalysis research at research institutes at a time when most in the industry were working on fuel cells.’

Given this background, it is perhaps understandable that automotive companies are cautious about advertising their substantial investment in R&D in fuel cells for road vehicles throughout this period. Nonetheless, significant progress has been made, with Daimler, for example, launching its first fleet of Mercedes-Benz fuel cell cars in 2009 and unveiling a 1000km-range fuel cell concept car at the Frankfurt motor show in September 2011.

According to Mohrdieck, the industry has moved on to a new stage. ‘In the 1990s you could only start [fuel cell] cars at temperatures above zero degrees, because ice formation would damage the electrode,’ he explains. Scientists have dealt with the problem by either changing the materials and structure of the proton exchange membrane in the fuel cells or finding ways to ensure that no water enters the system. These areas are the source of many of the new inventions and patents in the sector.

Daimler is dedicated not only to further innovations in the field, but also determined to take the technology to full commercialisation. Mohrdieck explains: ‘Daimler has never given up on fuel cells, we kept our spending level up during the [financial] crisis because it is an important technology for the future.’ The advantages of the technology, compared with internal combustion engines and electric cars powered by batteries, he points out, are many, including zero emissions from the vehicle’s engine and transmission systems, low noise operating levels, going long distances without the need to refuel and fast refuelling time.

Having solved the running problems related to low temperatures, researchers are moving on to the next phase of development. ‘Our main focus now is cost reduction, life time and durability of the fuel cell. Durability and cost to some degree are conflicting goals. You can easily put in more costly materials for durability but at a higher cost,’ explains Mohrdieck.

The company continues to rely on platinum as the key catalyst material, but platinum is expensive and so it is also looking into alternatives. One way forward is to cut down on the amount of platinum that is used, says Mohrdieck. This has been reduced by a factor of 10 in the past, he says, but can be reduced further by more efficient use of the material, for example, by coating only those areas of the membrane that are necessary for the fuel cell reaction, or by using nanotechnology. Mohrdieck predicts a widely available commercial vehicle by 2014-15.

Fuel cell patents

A steady competitiveness behind the scenes also accounts for the abundance of fuel cell patents, especially in the automotive sector. ‘Everybody tries to secure their freedom of action and to prevent free access to the technologies in order to protect their competitive advantage. A lot of manufacturers work intensively on the development of this technology but only a few are ready for commercialisation,’ says Mohrdieck. Like Daimler, GM, Toyota, Honda and Kia all want to have production vehicles on the market by 2015.

‘Patent coverage is very important in the auto industry. No one wants to repeat the experience of the hybrid electric vehicle when Toyota got the advantage on the industry with its hybrid car. So the auto industry is writing patents as fast as it can, not only to protect its innovations but to stay ahead of the competition,’ comments Bob Remick, director of the hydrogen technology & systems centre at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, US.

As a complex technology with nothing in common with internal combustion engines, the use of fuel cells in cars also needs a range of other innovations. ‘Even something as mundane as a fixture that holds the fuel cell components together can be patented, both the design of the fixture and the materials used to fabricate it,’ states Remick. Radiators, coolants, hoses and other fittings in a road vehicle need to be altered to adjust to a different system.

Perhaps more significantly, unlike the combustion engine, fuel cells can also be used in a number of different applications. ‘The fuel cell has many markets and as many embodiments as can be conceived – it’s an engine with many applications,’ points out Brandon, adding that ‘a lot of patents are not around the fuel cell itself but the control system.’

Not surprisingly, some stationary applications of fuel cells are already on the market because there is less of an infrastructure issue. In Japan, for example, some top-of-the-range homes are fitted with fuel cell heat and power appliances. Such applications often have the advantage of fitting in with the existing gas network. In the UK, fuel cell spin-out Ceres is developing similar systems. Its products depend on solid oxide fuel cells (SOFC), which operate at high temperatures that and do not require platinum catalysts.

Commercial production for 2020

If the time lag in stationary fuel cell innovation is anything to go by, fuel cell R&D in the automotive sector could lead to widespread commercialisation of the vehicles in the early 2020s. Bob Remick disputes the idea that hydrogen fuel cell funding was eliminated in the US because of hydrogen infrastructure issues. These are still a major stumbling block, but progress has been made in relation to hydrogen storage in gaseous form.

US funding of fuel cells is also looking healthier. ‘Department of Energy (DoE) funding for automotive fuel cells has been increasing over the years to a high of $174m in 2009. It dropped to $134m in 2010 and is about $100m this year and we expect it to remain at the $100m/year level for a few more years. It’s been estimated that funding from the US auto manufacturer...has been two to three times the amount of US DoE funding,’ he states. This suggests a revival is not too far off, though infrastructure will still need to be improved beyond that time. Remick concludes: ‘As the manufacturers move toward full commercial production in 2020, US DoE funding will drop to near zero for R&D on the vehicles but will probably continue for some time on infrastructure development and methods for producing hydrogen from renewable energy.‘

Elisabeth Jeffries is a freelance writer based in London, UK.

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