Page last updated at 13:59 GMT, Wednesday, 5 October 2005 14:59 UK

Fuel cells 'need political push'

By Jo Twist
BBC News science and technology reporter

Image of President George Bush at a hydrogen fuel station
California aims to create its Hydrogen Highway network

The world must actively push for cleaner energy technologies such as fuel cells, says Sir David King, the UK government's chief scientific advisor.

But there needs to be a cultural shift in energy production, he told delegates at a fuel cell symposium in London.

Humans had to adapt to climate change, he said, but government could encourage wide adoption of new technologies.

Fuel cells convert the chemical energy stored in fuels, such as hydrogen and methanol, into electrical energy.

They are seen as a great clean energy hope for future sustainable power generation.

It is the beginning of the personal power revolution where people will be able to divorce themselves from the tyranny of the grid
George Apanel, SRI Consulting
Fuel cells are being refined for use at the small scale; there are laptop computers using methanol-powered cells, for instance.

And on the larger scale, too, the technology is making progress - to drive cars and buses, and to power buildings not connected to a national grid.

Fuel cells are not in the purest sense an "alternative" energy technology because the fuels on which they depend have to be produced in what may or may not be environmentally friendly processes.

Nonetheless, they allow the emission points of pollution to be pushed further back in the chain where they can be more easily collected and dealt with.

'Dramatic changes'

As the cost of production falls and efficiency increases, fuel cells are expected to find many more applications.

Sir David predicted some "dramatic changes" in the emerging industry over the next 10 to 20 years.

But, he said, government bodies, industry, academia and other interests had to work much closer together in order to push the technology into the mass market.

Image of Honda's FC Stack FCX car
Honda is testing its latest fuel cell car technology on a US family
Some of the earliest commercial products currently have niche uses.

Delegates at the Ninth Grove Fuel Cell Symposium in London were told that consumer electronics offered an obvious route forward.

"Consumer electronics will represent the first major mass market for fuel cells," said George Apanel from SRI Consulting, a chemical industry consultancy.

"It is the beginning of the personal power revolution where people will be able to divorce themselves from the tyranny of the grid."

He predicted the widespread availability of methanol fuel cells for portable consumer electronics within two years.

With 470 million consumer electronic devices requiring portable power, it could represent a fuel cell business worth about $25 billion, he added.

Graphic of hydrogen (proton exchange) fuel cell technology
1 Hydrogen: Constantly pumped in at negative terminal
2 Oxygen: Pumped in at opposite positive terminal
3 Catalyst: Helps electrons break free from hydrogen atoms
4 Membrane: Allows hydrogen ions through but blocks electrons
5 Circuit: Electrons flow through circuit to positive terminal
6 Electrons and hydrogen ions combine with oxygen, forming water

Alan Lloyd, from the Californian Environmental Protection Agency, told the meeting that climate change was a pressing concern.

He received the Grove Gold Medal at the symposium for his life's work on clean energy.

The refinement of fuel-cell technology was one of the most immediate challenges facing humans in the coming years, he said.

California currently had six hydrogen fuel-cell buses running, but that was nowhere near enough, he argued.

If we can move towards more indigenous sources of energy, then we are moving away from insecurities associated with imports
Sir David King, UK's chief scientist
The cost and speed of production needed to be reduced for them to become widespread, he added; and new infrastructure had to be put in place to support them.

The state has recently agreed plans for a Californian Hydrogen Highway, which aims to create 50 to 100 hydrogen refuelling stations, servicing 2,000 hydrogen-powered vehicles by 2010.

"Despite the fact that fuel cells are not in widespread use, we have the knowledge and the products to make it a real prospect," said Dr Lloyd.

He urged the introduction of new legislation to drive the whole field forward, and called on governments to make environmental protection a core policy concern.

"Fuel cells are the key technology of the future; we have the power to make it happen," he said.

Regulation push

Now that the automobile industry is growing increasingly concerned about fuel certainty, it is starting to look much more seriously at fuel cells.

Late last year, Honda released its third-generation fuel-cell car design, the Honda FC Stack FCX.

But a PricewaterhouseCoopers Fuel Cell Industry Survey this week also revealed that many in the industry were continuing to see poor returns, despite pumping millions into research and development.

This is blamed on delays in the take-up of fuel-cell technologies. Toshiba, for example, has developed a fuel-cell laptop, digital music player, and a mobile phone - but regulations are a barrier to their introduction.

Image of Toshiba's direct methanol fuel cell laptop
Regulations about methanol on flights are a barrier to commercialisation
There is no confirmed date for the launch of any products because international flight regulations prohibit taking methanol, the fuel used in the cells, on board aircraft.

Until the regulations change - they will be reviewed in 2007 - Toshiba cannot launch the products on to the market.

One of the big drivers behind fuel cells is obviously their cleaner emissions. But another concern, beyond climate change, is ensuring the security of energy supplies.

The UK's oil and gas reserves in the North Sea are finite, and it is increasingly looking to import energy.

"If we can move towards more indigenous sources of energy, then we are moving away from insecurities associated with imports," said Sir David.

In the UK, the fuel sector is relatively strong, he added, with more than 100 companies and 35 academic or contract groups working in the area.

Globally, companies such as BP, BOC, Rolls Royce, and Honda are all very active in pushing fuel cell technology.

Long life promised for laptop PCs
27 Mar 05 |  Technology
Nokia halts mobile fuel cell plan
04 Mar 05 |  Science/Nature
Toshiba develops tiny fuel cell
24 Jun 04 |  Technology
Looking to the hydrogen horizon
21 Sep 04 |  Science/Nature
Sun and hydrogen 'to fuel future'
12 Aug 04 |  Science/Nature
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01 Oct 04 |  Click

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