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Posted on June 16th, 2012, by

The world has already stepped into the 21st century facing some major problems and concerns. However, ecological disaster is probably the most acute among other burning problems. Air pollution and greenhouse effect became a concern for many countries, who are now trying to find ways out in order to improve the situation. Though air is being polluted with great variety of harmful substances, the pollution of it with exhaust fumes coming from automobiles contributes a lot to the creation of greenhouse effect. Is there a way out?  Yes, there is. However, it requires a lot of money investment.  Fuel cell industry is relatively new, but it will obviously become widely consumed rather soon, receiving popularity at the world market.

With fossil fuel combustion, carbon dioxide emissions from passenger vehicles, buses, and trucks have reached levels that are considered problematic for stabilizing our climate and avoiding average ground temperature levels unprecedented in human history[1]. Nowadays, fossil fuels are the main resource of energy used by people, because energy is one of the essential needs of human beings. Being used in large quantities fossil fuels provide people with low-cost energy, and natural environment with harmful substances. That is why it is very important to develop new transportation and industry services that would work by means of environmentally friendly energy resources. And fuel cell industry is considered to be one of the best at this point.

According to many scientific researches and surveys fuel cell industry will continue to develop, and during the next 10-20 years its products will become available for consumers all over the world. That is why it is important to speak about the management of this industry, its main challenges and opportunities for the future.

Present and future of the fuel cells

Before speaking about any aspects of fuel cell industry it is necessary to give the definition what it is. Fuel cell industry is industry, which produces galvanic energy conversion devices that convert the chemical energy of a fuel directly into electrical energy in the presence of an oxidant [7]. There are some examples of fuel cells including solid oxide, solid polymer and molten carbonate technologies [7].  Though this industry is considered to be relatively new, the roots of it go back to the 19th century, when Sir William Grove invented so-called Grove Cell in 1839, which was a predecessor of modern fuel cells. Then in 1932 Francis Bacon continued what Grove had started by creating fuel cell system with porous electrodes. In 1950 this type of fuel was used in the Apollo project, and in 1967 General Motors created an Electrovan, which was used only for company’s needs.  Nowadays there are a lot of companies that deal with production of fuel cells. The largest ones are Astris Energy Inc, IDACORP Inc and Ballard Power Systems. The latter is considered to be the world’s leader developing and manufacturing zero-emission PEM (proton exchange membrane) fuel cells used in transportation and power generation applications. Ballard’s main goal is to improve its product performance, to reduce the costs, develop products with great market vitality, and to continue building the relationship between customers and suppliers. Ballard has strong leading in this kind of industry partners, including DaimlerChrysler, Ford, EBARA, ALSTOM and FirstEnergy, to commercialize Ballard(R) fuel cells [2].

Currently fuel cell industry attracts more and more investors and businesses, while many countries are getting interested in fuel cells, considering possible opportunities and benefits of the industry. Obviously, fuel cell industry will go globally, creating new competitive environment. The countries playing the leading role in the production of fuel cells include the USA, Germany, Canada and Japan; and many other countries are already starting to make strategic investments into the development of their own fuel cell industry. As it has been mentioned above Canada is one of the leading producers of fuel cell, and that’s why we will speak about fuel cell industry by the example of this country.  Canada’s leadership in the development and commercialization of fuel cell and related technologies covers most fuel cell types, components and systems supply, systems integration, fuelling systems, and fuel storage, along with engineering and financial services [6]. Canadian fuel cell industry employs well-educated workers, the majority of which has post-secondary and university education. Being rather successful the industry gained $96.9 million in the revenues in 2001. Eighty-two percent of these revenues were based on exports, with sales of equipment (77 percent) being the mainstay of the growing industry. Western Canada was responsible for 70 percent of all revenues.

Total revenues for the Canadian industry are projected to reach $165.2 million by 2003 (70 percent growth) [6].

Annually Canada spends about $150 million for the research and development, and in 2001 Western Canada’s expenditures were about 87 percent of research and development expenditures in a whole. Traditionally, much of the research and development has been carried out at the corporate level, often with support from the federal or provincial governments. Institutional research activities have been accomplished at CANMET (Natural Resources Canada), the Canadian Hydrogen Institute in Trois-Rivières, and later at the National Research Council’s Institute for Fuel Cell Innovation in Vancouver [6]. For a rather long period of time, a number of Canadian universities have conducted research projects in fuel cell and hydrogen related topics. Further research activities are expected to be held over the next few years.

Fuel cell industry is only developing, and the major problem of it is lack of statistical information and analyses.  In Canada and elsewhere, the industry is characterized by a relatively low number of small (mostly under 500 employees) companies engaged exclusively (over 50 percent of revenues derived from the fuel cell and hydrogen related activities) in the sector, with a much larger range of companies involved to a much smaller degree in the supply of parts, systems and services [6]. There are four types of companies that can be distinguished in the fuel cell industry. They include companies, which focus on fuel cell production; suppliers to the producers of fuel cells; fuel cells infrastructure, and providers of services to the fuel cell industry [6].

The number of companies involved in the industry is increasing rateably with the growth of the industry itself.  For example, the United States proposes spending $2.7 billion over the next five years for hydrogen and fuel cell research and development and advanced automotive technologies [6].  Freedom Fuel Initiative is going to develop technologies for the production of hydrogen and its distribution to satisfy needs of power fuel cell vehicles and stationary fuel cell power sources. FreedomCAR Initiative was formed as a partnership of automakers in order to develop technologies that are necessary for mass production of safe and inexpensive fuel cell vehicles. In Japan the government provided over $275 million in 2002 to support fuel cell research, development and distribution. This spending is expected to exceed $380 million per year beginning in 2003 [6]. As for Germany, it spends about $60 million annually to fund the fuel cell industry.

There are several reasons why fuel cells become so popular: 1) fuel cells offer a viable alternative, particularly for systems requiring 24/7 operation; 2) dispersed generation of energy, which means having a great number of smaller power systems instead of single large one. 3) opportunities for economic development. Each new fuel cell company creates jobs which foster economic growth; 4) unlimited applications and uses. Along with the obvious large-scale uses, smaller potential applications exist too. In reality, it is expected that, in the near future, fuel cells will be used as the source of energy for cell phones, laptop computers, lawn mowers, and other electronic gadgets. It is obvious, that possibilities of uses of fuel cells are endless.  Large fuel cells can be used to provide high-quality stationary power to supply telecommunications relay towers, buildings, wastewater treatment plants, and the electric utility grid. In large-scale stationary applications, fuel cells drastically reduce harmful emissions and lower carbon dioxide emissions by 45% [3].

Figure 1.

Fuel cells are highly efficient for converting chemical fuel into electrical or mechanical energy because combustion is not involved [4]. The most progressive fuel cell is the proton-exchange membrane. In his article Wheels of Change: Advances in Automotive Technology Promise Cleaner, More Fuel Efficient Cars Marc Ross says in effect this is a lightweight battery that is continuously charged by passing hydrogen through a membrane composed of a fluorocarbon polymer [4]. In 1997, Chrysler started a new fuel cell program to develop a technology with the help of which the hydrogen could be produced from gasoline on board the vehicle. The advantage of this technology is its use of the existing gasoline infrastructure [4]. The major challenge of fuel cell industry is the development of fuel cell vehicles available for the large masses of the population. However, the high level of fuel economy that will be reached by the fuel cells will cover the expenses for the development, storage and maintenance of the hydrogen fuel cells.

The fuel cell automobile would be an extremely clean vehicle, with very low energy requirements and reduced emissions. DaimlerChrysler, Ford, and Toyota are taking the lead in developing these fuel cell cars. Daimler and Ford are supporting the fuel vehicle research of the Vancouver, Canada-based Ballard Corporation, which originally developed a fuel cell for use in submarines. [4] Obviously among other kinds of fuels that are available today, the hydrogen-powered fuel cells seem to be the most promising.

Conclusion

To make a conclusion it is necessary to emphasize that fuel cell industry has a bright and very promising future.

Further development of the industry will certainly lead to the mass consumption of the fuel cells by large companies as well as private consumers. The only problem is its high cost, which makes it difficult to purchase fuel cells for ordinary people and use it in their cars.

As for the prospects of international development, it is important to mention that globally, fuel cell technology has been achieving more approval and support. Japan is actively carrying out the development and distribution of fuel cells. China and India are also looking to fuel cells as a clean and viable alternative for automobiles and on-site generation applications. Such company as UTC installed its fuel cells at the farm; DaimlerChrysler unveiled a fuel-cell-powered Town & Country minivan, Natrium, in December 2001 which uses New Jersey based Millennium Cell’s Hydrogen on Demand system;  Ballard Power Systems Inc., a maker of fuel cells, and Osaka Gas are developing stationary power generators for the Japanese residential market [5].

Not long ago the development and distribution of fuel cells seemed very distant, however now fuel cell industry is our reality. The further development of industry’s technology and testing requires much financial investment and community support. However, it is already supported by a lot of people who care for the natural environment.

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