Last Friday saw The Carbon Trust in the U.K. announce they are going to offer “prizes” or more appropriately investments into three novel ideas with up to up to £1 million per project to further develop and prove them.  If any one of those demonstrates its potential for lower cost fuel cell systems, the Carbon Trust will then co-invest up to £5 million in the technology to develop it commercially.  That’s serious money, £5 million is nearly $8 million U.S. dollars at today’s exchange rate.

The call for proposals opened Friday October 9, 2009 at

The fuel cell market is stuck on production costs.  Fuel cells are already marketed around the world, with sales growing at over 60% a year – they are used to power forklift trucks, mobile phone masts or provide power in camper vans. However, they currently remain too expensive to be more widespread.  Current fuel cell system costs are still too high by a factor of at least ten for widespread uses. These costs could be brought down in the future through volume production, but projections show that even then, with today’s technology, costs would remain too high by 30-40% for most markets.

The initiative aims to deliver the critical reduction in fuel cell system costs that must be achieved to make mass-market deployment a reality. The Polymer Fuel Cells Challenge will aim to support those breakthroughs that will allow high-volume costs to come down by 35%, making fuel cell systems attractive for mass markets.  New Carbon Trust analysis shows that if substantial cuts can be achieved, the global market could be worth over $26 billion in 2020 and over $180 billion in 2050. The UK share of this market could be $1billion in 2020 rising to $19 billion in 2050.

Simply put, fuel cells efficiently convert the chemical energy contained in a fuel directly into electricity – they produce electricity like a battery but are fuelled like an engine or a boiler.  The Brits aim to accelerate the commercialization of breakthrough U.K. technology that could see the mainstream cost effective mass production of fuel cell powered cars and buses, as well as providing electricity and heat in homes and business. These kinds of mass-market applications could be saving the U.K. up to 7 million metric tons of CO2 a year in 2050, equivalent to taking two million of today’s cars off the road.

Dr Robert Trezona, Head of Research and Development at the Carbon Trust, says in launching the initiative, “Fuel cells have been ten years away from a real breakthrough for the past 20 years. This is a critical moment for U.K. fuel cell technology as emerging markets combine with technology cost breakthroughs to create a golden opportunity to launch world-beating products onto a massive global market.  Our initiative aims to drive forward the commercialization of the U.K.’s unique fuel cell expertise which will play a crucial role in the U.K.’s Clean Tech Revolution both cutting carbon and creating jobs and economic value.”

David Hart, Head of Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Research, Centre for Energy Policy and Technology at Imperial College, said: “For many years fuel cell and hydrogen technologies have been expected to become a cornerstone of a low-carbon, more efficient energy system, but the cost, durability and performance of current fuel cell systems remain unattractive in most applications. The Polymer Fuel Cells Challenge is an exciting opportunity to address these issues with a fresh perspective and coordinated approach to make polymer fuel cells an everyday commercial reality.”

Celia Greaves, at the private advocacy firm Fuel Cells UK, said: “We warmly welcome the Carbon Trust’s new Polymer Fuel Cells Challenge. The U.K. is home to a number of world-class fuel cell companies and research centers, and substantive intellectual property has already been created in this area. Initiatives such as this from the Carbon Trust are vital to strengthening the UK’s position and ensuring that the UK is innovative and remains competitive in this growing global industry.”

The Carbon Trust is focusing on polymer fuel cells for three reasons:

1.    They can be used in many different products, including all the applications with a strong prospect for carbon savings (cars, buses, combined heat and power).
2.    The horizontal structure of the polymer fuel cell supply chain allows the development of new businesses to market component technologies rather than requiring the development of completely new systems; and
3.    There is capacity and appetite from the U.K. research and industry community to deliver breakthrough polymer fuel cell technologies, which the Carbon Trust has confirmed with extensive recent engagement.

The Carbon Trust is an independent company set up in 2001 by the U.K. government in response to the threat of climate change, to accelerate the move to a low carbon economy by working with organizations to reduce carbon emissions and develop commercial low carbon technologies.

The newest fuel cells can cold start just as well as an internal combustion engine. Fourth generation General Motors fuel cells were lasting 80k miles and the 5th generation is expected to start at 120k miles and improve on from there.  That seems good, but as the economy shows now, 120k mileage is still a youthful automobile.

It’s a near sure thing the “competition” is closed to other than U.K. organizations. But that’s not the point, it’s that serious money is willing to get on with the newest and most efficient means to use fuels and transition the fuel energy into work.  Any breakthrough will be instructive worldwide.  But a head start, which is the fundamental aspect of the challenge, is what matters.  Getting cheaper fuel cells across a range of fuel candidates would be a national boon wherever it happens first.  Coming up with light carbon fuels is much easier than many thought a few years ago, and the potential from bio sourced methane and methanol up to ethane and ethanol are stunning.

It’s a ways off to say 300 thousand U.S. miles, a cost comparison with and internal combustion engine and drive sets, and sure fuel supplies with convenient availability.  But even a pure hydrogen fuel cell would be worthwhile in many circumstances.

The risk in this is in the picking.  As you’ll note, the Carbon Trust is a government creature and they’re doing what such creatures do – trying to choose a winner.  Maybe they will catch a good one, maybe not.  But the cash flow will help everyone to some extent and might evoke a privateer somewhere in the world to a breakthrough.  Let’s hope its sooner than later.


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