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How Soon is Now?

Looking for Fuel Cell Technology's Future.
Fortnightly Magazine - November 1 2001

for their 250-kilowatt (kW) offering by the end of the year. That product soon will be augmented to 300-kW in its next-generation incarnation, and the company also will be unveiling a 1.5-MW plant, followed by a 3-MW plant. H Power, meanwhile, also is operating within the same timeframe for its residential product release, maintaining its stance that it plans to be in commercial production to the early adopter market for residential fuel cells some time in the latter part of 2002. Other companies generally cited as being close to bringing mass-produced products to market include Plug Power and International Fuel Cells, a unit of United Technologies Corp.

Price Too Prohibitive?

Hoopla gone or not, no one is denying that the fuel cell has its obstacles. The most obvious is the cost. Can it compete with central station power dollar-for-dollar? No, say the experts, and that's why the fuel cell market is a niche market, at least in the near-term. "The main issue is the price," says Eric Prouty, principal at investment bank Adams, Harkness & Hill. "It's got to drop, just as everything has done in the past, from consumer electronics to cars."

A Look at Fuel Cell Technology

All fuel cell technologies are not alike, and the maturation trajectory varies from technology to technology. Many experts agree that the technologies that may hit the market first, because of their generally lower-temperature (and thereby less efficient) properties, will soon be surpassed by their higher-temperature counterparts-and by the present day "dark horse" companies investing in them.

Alkaline Fuel Cell -uses a potassium hydroxide electrolyte and operates at 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Alkaline fuel cells have the highest electrical efficiency (70%), and are utilized by NASA in the space shuttle programs. However, the systems are too costly for commercial use.

Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel Cell (PEM) -uses a polymer membrane electrolyte and operates at approximately 200 degrees Fahrenheit. The output can range from watts to hundreds of kilowatts. The lower temperature coupled with the target capacity make PEM fuel cells suitable for residential or automotive applications, and PEM technology is utilized by Ballard Power Systems for automotive applications and by H Power, Plug Power and others targeting the residential market.

Phosphoric Acid Fuel Cell -uses a phosphoric acid electrolyte and operates at a temperature of 400 degrees Fahrenheit. This type of fuel cell was the first commercialized for stationary power generation, and its output may range from 50 kW to 20 megawatts. Because of its flexibility, potential applications of the phosphoric fuel cell include hotels, hospitals, airport terminals and even locomotives and buses. The International Fuel Cell unit of United Technologies markets systems using the phosphoric acid technology.

Molten Carbonate Fuel Cell -uses a potassium/lithium carbonate electrolyte and operates at approximately 1200 degrees Fahrenheit. Molten carbonate fuel cells have electrical efficiencies of 50-55% and upwards of 70-80% when configured as cogeneration with heat recovery. The technology is well suited to megawatt-size applications (commercial buildings and institutions, for example). The leading developer of the molten carbonate technology is FuelCell Energy.

Solid Oxide Fuel Cell -uses a