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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 May, 2003, 09:42 GMT 10:42 UK
UK flagging in fuel cell race

Despite helping to pioneer the modern fuel cell, the UK is losing ground in its development compared with other countries, a survey says.

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The report, by industry-sponsored analysts at Fuel Cell Today, finds that only a fraction of fuel-cell-related patents have been lodged by UK companies. Most come from the US, Japan and Germany.

Poor investment by the UK Government is partly to blame, say analysts.

The introduction of fuel-cell-powered vehicles is seen by many as a key step in one day making significant reductions in emissions.

However, it may be some years before the technology is fully developed - and the report says that the UK's role in this process is "uncertain".

'Missing the boat'

David Jollie, one of the report's authors, told the BBC: "Development of a completely new engine technology is going to take quite a few years, and a lot of work has got to go on around the area.

We're not investing enough money and there isn't enough government support for fuel cell development
Julie Foley, Institute of Public Policy Research

"If you don't start doing that now, you have the problem of missing the boat."

There is only one fully functioning commercial fuel cell in the UK - providing power at a swimming pool in Woking.

This, however, had to be sourced from the US because no UK company could supply it.

Research funding available to UK groups is dwarfed by more than a billion dollars pledged for the development of cleaner hydrogen vehicles by President George W Bush this year.

This is despite the fact that it was British scientists who developed the idea that energy could be extracted by combining hydrogen and oxygen.

It was first demonstrated as early as 1839 by Sir William Grove.

However, it was in the 1950s that the first practical fuel cell was developed by Cambridge scientist Francis Bacon.

It was his work which allowed the US space agency (Nasa) to provide electrical power for the Apollo moon lander a decade later.

Taking the oppportunity

There remain more than 100 organisations in the UK with an active interest in fuel cells or related technology.

A total of approximately 850 people currently work in the UK in fuel-cell-related areas, says the survey.

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Some research funding comes via the Department of Trade and Industry and the European Union.

Many of the proposed applications for fuel cells are transport-related and the UK Department of Transport also offers funding, as does the Carbon Trust and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Julie Foley, from the Institute of Public Policy Research, said that British firms had the chance to be at the forefront of fuel cell research.

However, she told the BBC: "At the moment we risk losing out on that opportunity, because we're not investing enough money and there isn't enough government support for fuel cell development."

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