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Fuel cells - the way ahead

Connect, no. 128, January/February 2004, p.1

Fuel cells - the way ahead

As part of its involvement in renewable energy, TWI has teamed up with Core Technology Ventures to survey the extent to which TWI Industrial Members have evaluated the risk fuel cells could pose to their businesses. CTV is a venture capital company focused on the European fuel cell market.

Commercial introduction of fuel cell power will be driven by economics. Technical innovation is driving down the price per watt, while legislation such as the Kyoto protocol will produce government-led incentives. These factors will result in fuel cells becoming economically viable.

Fuel cells convert chemical energy into electricity and heat from a variety of fuels. Unlike batteries, fuel cells use an external fuel supply and in principle run so long as fuel is supplied. Compared with combustion engines, fuel cells offer particularly high conversion efficiency (up to 60%) and far lower emissions, since the only waste product of hydrogen oxidation is water. SO x and NO x emissions are barely detectable and CO 2 emissions are reduced due to the increased operating efficiency. Thus fuel cells combine the best of both batteries and combustion engines, whilst avoiding most, if not all, of their undesirable characteristics.

Fuel cells are approaching commercialisation, but external awareness remains low. In Europe, funding is not generally available for small organisations to work together to solve problems with new technologies.

Any business could be affected in some way by fuel cells, but many are unaware of the potential changes they face. For example, a car exhaust manufacturer would probably be unfamiliar with the requirements of a fuel cell system, while a mobile phone manufacturer would not know of the need to redesign layout if a fuel cell replaced the battery.

Large organisations in the supply chain tend to be involved through a dedicated fuel cell development group. However for smaller companies there is no easy way to obtain the information necessary to make an informed decision.

TWI and CTV are seeking to identify the attitude of different industries to the challenge of fuel cells and their need for information to manage the risk.

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