Archived Viewpoints









About This Technology

Fuel cells produce electricity with greater efficiency, less noise, and far less pollution than combustion technologies do because the cells convert chemical energy directly into electrical energy. Fuel cells are also modular, allowing construction of almost any size power plant and simple expansion of existing facilities. New fuel-cell systems are proving themselves to be reliable, and their efficiency is relatively high even at low load levels and in small systems. Most fuel-cell types can operate on hydrogen. Internal or external fuel-processing systems are necessary to enable use of hydrocarbon fuels in most low-temperature fuel cells (direct-methanol fuel cells are one exception) or to enable use of complex hydrocarbon fuels in high-temperature fuel cells. In the long term, fuel cells might play an important role in an energy system that relies heavily on carbon-free or carbon-neutral fuels and energy cycles.

Fuel cells have provided electric power for some orbiting space vehicles but are not yet economically competitive for widespread commercial terrestrial use because of high capital costs. Development and early commercialization of market-entry products for portable power, remote power, and small-scale distributed or on-site power generation are under way. Some companies have begun expanding commercial sales of fuel-cell systems for stationary-power applications. Fuel-cell-powered portable electronic devices began to enter the market in 2009. Heavy investment by a few automobile manufacturers has also spurred rapid growth in R&D for transportation applications and produced some impressive demonstration vehicles. However, the cost of fuel-cell cars, the lack of a hydrogen-supply infrastructure, and market competition from hybrid and electric vehicles have pushed the timeline for significant fuel-cell car sales out to about 2015.

Fuel cells have attracted wide interest not only for their potential environmental benefits but also for their potential to change traditional ways of doing business. For example, fuel cells may give natural-gas producers and distributors a way to become electricity providers. Traditional electric utilities may be able to avoid transmission and distribution costs by going to a distributed-generation model. The smart-grid concept may create an entirely new business model for energy-service providers. Other companies may simply see new sources of competition. For example, battery producers and companies that provide remote or emergency power systems, such as diesel generators, may see competition from fuel cells. At the same time, fuel cells may enable new technologies. For example, fuel cells may offer a way to power next-generation systems for military applications in remote areas. Should fuel cells find wide use, they would represent a new market for materials suppliers, equipment manufacturers, and even companies with software for process simulation and control. Membrane manufacturers, catalyst companies, and suppliers of specialized components such as power electronics may all see new markets emerge for their products.