Micro-power fuel cells, intended to power portable electronic devices such as cell phones, PDAs and laptop computers, will be the key technical and economic driver for the entire fuel cell market – including stationary and automotive applications – said Jim Balcom, president and CEO of PolyFuel. Balcom made his remarks to assembled industry experts at the Ninth Grove Fuel Cell Symposium, held recently in London, U.K.
“The future market leaders in fuel cells will likely be from those companies that aggressively participate today in the development, manufacturing and marketing of small, portable fuel cells for mobile applications,” said Balcom.“Those companies that wait it out, or focus their energies on the more technologically challenging but less immediate segments, such as stationary power or automotive applications, will literally miss the boat, even in their own segments.”
The reason, said Balcom, is that the great engine that drives rapid technological progress is “true market demand”. And of the three key segments of the long-awaited fuel-cell market, portable applications will be ready for liftoff first. Cost and performance of the technology are in line, volume distribution channels are already in place, and a huge, pent-up market demand is developing. Only regulatory issues – principally the carriage of small fuel cartridges on airplanes – remain an impediment, one that is widely expected to disappear within the next 18 months.
“According to recent published studies, portable device power demand is increasing three times faster than the rate of battery improvement,” stated Balcom. “This gives rise to what we call a ‘run-time gap’ – the difference in the demand for energy in devices like PDAs, smartphones, laptops, or MP3 players, and that actually available with contemporary battery technology. By 2010, the demand for energy is forecast to be four times that which is available.”The result, said Balcom, is that users of contemporary personal electronic devices will experience run times measured in tens of minutes versus the hours that they will demand. “This is the run-time gap,” he said, and it is going to drive portable fuel cells to mass commercialization years before automotive fuel cells become economically viable, or stationary power fuel cells become widely deployed.”
Balcom believes that the same powerful processes that have given us 50-million transistor computer chips, 300-gigabyte hard disk drives, and US$25 color television cameras – to name a few – will be at work in the portable fuel cell industry in the coming years. “The flow of money into the portable segment will be profound,” he said, “and that will drive R&D at a rate that will yield the familiar exponential drops in price matched by exponential increases in product performance. Advances will be made – continuously and at an increasing rate – in every imaginable aspect of fuel cell designs, materials and processes – that will significantly raise the level of price-performance for all fuel cell categories.”
According to Balcom, this represents a tremendous opportunity for those companies that choose to aggressively play in this segment, but a bane for those that don’t. “The downstream loss in terms of accumulated expertise – particularly in materials and manufacturing – will be significant. In the ‘brass ring’ represented by cheap, reliable automotive fuel cells, the prize will likely be won by those who rode the portable fuel cell carousel, versus those who remained focused only on the ring.”
The logic of this argument has not been lost on certain key industry players, who are jumping on board to develop micro-power fuel cell systems, claimed Balcom. “Fujitsu, Hitachi, IBM, LG, NEC, Samsung, Sanyo, Sharp, Sony, and Toshiba, among others, have publicly acknowledged that they are actively working on systems. A significant number of the leading fuel cell component developers have also recognized the market leadership opportunities that are available, and are moving convincingly into the portable fuel cell market space. When you – or your kids – buy that first fuel cell car someday, don’t be surprised to see one or more of these names somewhere in the fuel cell power train. In addition, BiC, Tokai, and Duracell, among others, are tackling the cartridge and distribution issues, which, for fuel cell cartridges, are very similar to those for cigarette lighters and batteries.”
Balcom’s PolyFuel, which is well known in the industry for its breakthroughs in portable fuel cell membrane technology, has literally experienced the learning curve and technology fallout phenomena first hand. “The hundreds of thousands of hours of R&D that went into our hydrocarbon membranes for micro-power fuel cells, and what we learned in working with dozens of customers and potential customers, enabled us to announce significant advances in hydrocarbon membrane for automotive-hydrogen fuel cells. There was a clear path from ‘A’ to ‘B’.” The membrane is the crucial “heart” of a fuel cell that enables it to convert fuel into electricity.
Balcom’s remarks were echoed at the end of the program by session chairman, Dr. James Wilkie, a director at Johnson Matthey Fuel Cells (Swindon, U.K.), who stated that direct methanol fuel cells (DMFCs) – which a recent study by "Fuel Cell Today" cited as the predominant and leading technology for portable fuel cells – were strong contenders to be "first", and that they would have spin-off benefits for automotive and stationary.
Among some of the technical and economic points made by Balcom were these: current fuel cell technology costs between US$3,000 and $5,000 per kilowatt – in the economic range for micro-power applications, but out of range to marginal for stationary applications ($500 - $2,000 per kilowatt) and wildly out of range for automotive (currently $20 to $50 per kilowatt for gasoline [petrol].) In terms of durability, current fuel cell lifetimes of 3,000 to 8,000 hours exceed the 2,000-hour needs for portable devices, but remains challenging for automotive (5,000 hours for cars to 20,000 for buses and trucks), and a non-starter for stationary applications (40,000 hours to 80,000 hours.) By contrast the infrastructure for stationary is simple – the existing natural gas distribution grid, as is that for portable – the existing consumer distribution channels for batteries and lighters. Automotive, however, with the need for compressed hydrogen gas distribution, filling stations and storage depots, remains profoundly challenging. Stationary applications include battery backup systems for cell sites, standby power systems for hospitals, and household combined heat and power in countries with weak power grids.
An informative chart from Balcom’s remarks can be found at http://www.polyfuel.com/pressroom/press_pr_101905_chart.html