New report says hydrogen-based economy closer than commonly thought

Phoenix, AZ, May 30, 2006 — A hydrogen-based economy? Laptops and cell phones powered by lightweight, inexpensive rechargeable fuel cells? Automobiles that run on methane and emit virtually no pollutants into the atmosphere? All this is possible according to a report on fuel cells just published by Energy Business Reports, an energy industry think tank.

The new report examines and compares various types of fuel cells, including the technology behind them, the advantages and disadvantages of each type, and potential market applications. The report also looks at issues in the industry, such as pricing, regulation, technical challenges and competitive threats, and concludes that although breakthroughs are needed in some areas, fuel cells are a promising technology for the future.

A fuel cell is an electrochemical energy conversion device that produces electricity by converting hydrogen and oxygen into water. Fuel cells use the pressure created by the expansion of gases for mechanical work, and when needed, they also convert chemical energy back into electrical energy providing a constant flow of chemicals into the cell and preventing it from dying.
The electrical energy created by fuel cells is produced without combustion and with virtually no pollutants, making fuel cells the next logical step for the production of energy.

Fuel cells have potential in space/military applications, transportation, stationary (on-site) uses, utility scale, and in portable products. Different types of fuel cells are suited for different applications. For example, solid oxide and molten carbonate fuel cells, which operate at higher temperatures than the other kinds of fuel cells, are used principally for stationary applications where co-generation is possible.

Over the next decade, fuel cell demand will likely increase due to high petroleum prices and continued environmental concerns. The global commercial fuel cell market is expected to reach $2.5 billion by 2009. Electric power generation is emerging as a large-scale commercial market for fuel cells and is expected to represent more than half of all demand in 2008. Aerospace and motor vehicle applications may lag somewhat in the near term, but are projected to grow rapidly between 2008 and 2013. The portable electronics market is expected to report the strongest advances over the next decade.

The electrical capacity of batteries has not kept pace with the increasing power consumption requirements of electronic devices. Features such as W-LAN, higher CPU speed, “always-on,” larger and brighter displays, and other add-ons are important for users, but are severely limited by current battery life. Lithium ion batteries and lithium-polymer batteries have almost reached their functional limits. These limitations have generated enormous interest in alternative power sources, and the fuel cell is the most promising candidate.

About a dozen companies and institutions worldwide are active in the field of miniaturized fuel cell systems. When micro fuel cells are commercialized, they will provide significant improvements in energy storage and allow electronic devices to incorporate new features as well as lengthen their operating times. Equally important, users will be able to “reload” in a few seconds by replacing the fuel cartridge, as compared to the hours required to recharge a conventional rechargeable battery.

The portable device market will enable the general public to experience fuel cells in an everyday environment. Second round commercialization will follow in stationary applications, such as institutional electrical generators.
Ironically, the transportation sector, where fuel cells have earned the broadest groundswell of acceptance, will require a much longer time to reach full commercialization potential. Major challenges that will take time to overcome in the transportation sector include achieving price parity with the internal combustion engine and establishment of a hydrogen-fueling infrastructure.

Various environmental and economic factors continue to drive the need to develop fuel cells, including the cost and availability of oil, energy security, climate change, and environmental quality. China’s and India’s growing energy demands, conflicts in the oil producing regions of the world, and the desire of governments in developing countries to protect their citizens from the polluting effects of rapid industrial development are just some of the issues playing an increasingly important role in the fuel cell industry’s evolution.

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