Fuel Cells: Current Technology Challenges And Future Research Needs

I have worked as an analyst on science and technology policy for many years, both in and out of government.

My interest in fuel cell technology has been more recent, however. In 2000, I saw major fuel cell programs being pursued around the globe. I wrote some papers on the subjects, which were noticed by the White House and led to the FreedomCar Initiative and the Hydrogen Fuel Initiative in 2002 and 2003. These initiatives were designed to promote the development of fuel cell cars and encourage the construction of needed hydrogen fuel supply infrastructure. Since then, I have become an enthusiastic observer of fuel cell developments worldwide.

The fuel cell industry has seen many ups and downs. Many companies dedicated a lot of hard work and billions of dollars to develop fuel cell technology. Many governments also recognized the promise of fuel cells and worked in tandem with industry. The world watched these developments with great hope and expectations. But these efforts did not deliver on their promise.

To date, major impediments to fuel cell commercialization remain; fuel cells still have insufficient longevity, reliability, and have unacceptably high cost. With sadness and disappointment, I started to wonder why fuel cell technology has not become commercially successful. After all, fuel cells were invented in 1839, more than 170 years ago. Many technologies such as airplanes, computers, and automobiles, have been successfully commercialized much sooner than that.

I concluded that fuel cell technology must be a more complex and challenging technology than any of these other examples and that few in the industry appreciated the difficulties they faced. I started to realize that the challenges of fuel cell technology derive from complex physical and chemical processes taking place at the atomic level within the fuel cell and its supporting components. These processes span the “seams” that define traditional scientific and engineering disciplines and therefore are much more difficult to master than problems that can be addressed within a single discipline.

Perhaps no advanced technology on the market today requires the scale, magnitude, and range of scientific, physical, and engineering knowledge as do fuel cells. Only recently have fuel cell researchers begun to recognize the true complexity of the technology.

Perhaps modern science has progressed to the point that researchers are now ready to explore and discover the secrets of fuel cell, how it works, why it works, and how it can be made to work cheaply, reliably, and efficiently. That is why I wrote this book. It took five years of research and writing to document the story of fuel cells, including the many impressive accomplishments of researchers and companies worldwide who have worked to master the technology. The book describes many unfortunate stories of companies that ultimately gave up and abandoned their fuel cell research. It evaluates the successes and failures of government policy to promote fuel cell development, and explains why government policies were unable to build the needed foundation for its commercial success.

Finally, the book provides policymakers in every country a set of recommendations as to what they can do to change the current situation and help realize the ultimate promise of fuel cell technology.

I have made every effort to ensure that the material contained in this document is current, complete, and accurate. Nonetheless, errors and mistakes undoubtedly exist in the text. I apologize for any such errors and hope they will be forgiven. My intention is sincere, and I take full responsibility for the conclusions in this book. I also thank those companies which so kindly provided photographs of their automobiles, buses, and power generation systems and granted their permission for reprinting. Because of page length limitations I was unable to use them. I am very sorry for this and hope you will understand.

Lastly but not the least, I would like to thank Dr. Mark Williams, former DOE fuel cell manager and a prominent international fuel cell leader, for his kind guidance and assistance. I am particularly grateful for his fairness and understanding of my analytical judgments, which I know occasionally conflict with his own experiences.

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