Behling Fuel Cells

"Fuel Cells: Current Technology Challenges and Future Research Needs"

Date publishedFormat
31 Jan 2013PDF (317 kb)

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By Noriko Behling, Elsevier B.V., The Netherlands, 2013, 685 pages, ISBN: 978-0-444-56325-5, Hardcover £147.25 or $184.99.

In the book “Fuel Cells: Current Technology Challenges and Future Research Needs” Noriko Behling provides a comprehensive history of each major type of fuel cell technology and proposes a bold course of action to address current difficulties in commercialising fuel cells.

The book is structured into nine chapters and begins with a brief history of fuel cell technology, from its invention through to its emergence as a commercial product today – Behling ponders that William Grove couldn’t have dreamt it would take more than 170 years before commercial exploitation of his invention!

There follow five chapters which comprehensively lay out the commercial history of all the major fuel cell types. Beginning with alkaline fuel cells (AFC) and the technology’s association with numerous space programmes in both Russia and the USA the author discusses a large number of companies in the USA, Europe and Russia that have attempted to commercialise AFC technology. It concludes that little progress has been made in this regard, and that all of these companies have now ceased development of this technology. While some of the companies cited technical reasons, the author does not always make it apparent why others ceased developing the technology. The sole exception is UK-based AFC Energy, which is currently running field trials of its AFC unit fuelled using by-product hydrogen at a chlor-alkali plant in Germany.

Phosphoric acid fuel cell (PAFC) developments focus mainly on the USA and Japan. In the US, government support for PAFC has historically been strong, with research programmes funded by the Department of Defense (DoD) and run by United Technologies Corporation (UTC). In Japan, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has also funded a range of initiatives attempting to develop commercial PAFC units. The companies involved are discussed here, but this chapter also includes comprehensive tables listing installations by the US DoD, UTC Power, and those under the METI sponsored programmes. Little PAFC development activity is discussed for Europe, but again, a table of European installations is included, dominated by those from UTC Power. Like that of AFC technology, Behling states that PAFC technology has not enjoyed any measurable success globally primarily due to its high cost.

The chapter on molten carbonate fuel cells is dominated by US-based FuelCell Energy (FCE) and its tie-up with POSCO Energy in Korea. Again, tables of installation data are available and show FCE’s domestic sales dwindling in recent years. However, through its Korean partner, sales have ramped up progressively during the past four years. In Europe, FCE also dominates installations, with other companies going out of business citing a lack of funding to develop a commercial product.

The picture for SOFC development is little better according to Behling, despite a number of US companies succeeding in commercialising their fuel cells for prime power and military applications. A list of commercial ventures from companies such as Bloom Energy and Versa Power Systems are discussed, but the author concludes that US dominance in the development of SOFC technology has waned in recent years. European developments by Topsoe and Wärtsilä are discussed among many others, including the companies active in developing micro-CHP SOFC systems, and Behling concludes that there is a lack of strategy in Europe when it comes to commercialisation of SOFC. The one positive she identifies is the adoption of Ceramic Fuel Cells Limited’s SOFC technology by Germany, but overall the author bemoans the lack of cost competitiveness, durability and efficiency of SOFC technology worldwide.

The final technology chapter covers both proton exchange membrane fuel cells (PEMFC) and direct methanol fuel cells (DMFC). Similar to the previous chapters it tracks the development of the technologies, in particular citing the development of PEMFC for vehicles around the world and for residential micro-CHP trials in Japan. Developments at each of the main automakers conducting fuel cell research are included, as are tables of material handling vehicle deployments in the USA. Behling again concludes that PEMFC and DMFC are failing to find the major international success they promised, and that more niche applications are emerging. She suggests that trends have emerged showing PEMFC and DMFC are not robust or efficient enough to serve as prime power units in cars and buses, likewise for residential CHP applications.

The book culminates in a set of policy recommendations, which Behling builds towards throughout. The author states that fuel cell technology is too valuable to abandon, but having identified key failure modes for each technology, she calls for a back-to-basics approach to fund research aimed at solving the problems which have beset the industry thus far. In part this lack of fundamental understanding is attributed to scientific techniques being too underdeveloped to allow full understanding of fuel cell fundamentals. Behling states that overcoming this will allow for better development of commercial products. To this end the author calls for a National Fuel Cell Development Project (NFCDP) on a similar scale to the Manhattan Project to advance fundamental understanding of fuel cells. She calls for $2 billion per year in funding for 5 years to achieve this.

Overall, the book provides a thorough digest, if slightly negative at times, of global developments in the fuel cell industry, both in terms of research and commercialisation. While the author’s call for fundamental research funding on such a scale is admirable, achieving such funding levels in the current economic climate would be challenging.

The book is available to order online in both the UK and the USA.

Dan Carter     Manager


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