Researchers drop fuel cell bomb shell

One of the UK's biggest funders of economic research has backed a report which claims development of fuel cells is being stifled because car manufacturers and power generators are scared of the long-term implications.

According to a study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) research into the value of hydrogen fuel cells as an environmentally sound solution to our energy needs has been neglected by both government and industry.

The report, produced by economists from the Cass Business School in London, argues that vested interests in existing technologies mean there are plenty who would not be disappointed to see the fuel cell fail.

Fuel cells have the potential to be, according to the economists, a ‘disruptive innovation’ – one which displaces that which comes before it, much in the way the CD spelled the end for vinyl records and digital cameras are displacing film photography.

Disruptive innovations are radically different from the existing dominant technology and to begin with they are often not as good.

The result is two-fold. First the companies currently providing the energy which fuel cells could offer are not necessarily keen to see a change in the status quo, says the report, and will therefore do what they can to resist the change.

Second, because profits are unlikely to be immediate, funding can be problematic.

“Fuel cells are a genuine ‘clean’ technology,” said Professor Chris Hendry, one of its authors.

“But re-investment in nuclear technology is likely to squeeze out the investment necessary to make fuel cells competitive with existing energy sources and with other non-nuclear alternative energy options.”

Despite the hurdles, the potential of fuel cells is being pursued in the UK, Germany, North America and Japan but interviews with seventy companies in these countries show the UK fuel cell industry is lagging behind.

The UK is comparatively strong in developing hydrogen as a fuel source, reflecting the interests of the oil and gas companies, and in fuel cell components.

Indeed, university research has led to the establishment of a number of new firms. Nevertheless the industry supply chain for fuel cells is generally underdeveloped and there have been few efforts by government to support the creation of a market.

In stark contrast, the study finds, Germany has more medium and large firms along the supply chain as well as technological excellence in engineering and electronics to support the overall design of fuel cell systems.

It has energy supply companies committed to testing fuel cells, and there are active government incentives. As a result, Germany has 75% of the installations in Europe.

Germany and Japan offer the most favourable conditions for fuel cells in residential combined heat and power and, the authors say, may well become ‘lead countries’ in technology and market development.

While a number of countries have used bus fleets as a test-bed for fuel cell technology, bus manufacturers and operators have been lukewarm, says the report, so the technology has so far failed to find a foothold in public transport.

There are governments keen to embrace the potential of the fuel cell, says the report, and the UK is in danger of being left behind.

“The role of a clear guiding vision and political will is illustrated by Japan, which has bypassed bus demonstrations in favour of building a fuel infrastructure that can be used by the automotive industry to support the development of cars,” said Hendry.

A summery of the report, The development and diffusion of fuel cell technology as a disruptive innovation, can be found on the ESRC website.

Sam Bond

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