The Fuel Cell Industry Faces a “Chicken and Egg” Dilemma
To overcome barriers to the widespread adoption of hydrogen fuel cells should there be a focus on infrastructure or further technological development?
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The following article is an opinion piece written by Tom Mason. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Technology Networks.
While there are numerous projects and initiatives currently underway in cleantech development, one device showing huge promise with regard to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is the fuel cell. Hydrogen fuel cells have the potential to reshape our energy landscape and create a sustainable future through their versatility and efficiency.
Utilizing hydrogen or hydrogen-rich fuels and oxygen to generate electricity, these devices are highly energy efficient compared to combustion engines and can be powered by a range of hydrogen sources. What’s more, at the point of use, fuel cells only emit heat and water, reducing some of the worries around air pollution or greenhouse gas emissions.
Despite the fact that fuel cell technology has been available for a considerable period, its widespread adoption and economic viability face obstacles, particularly due to the high costs involved in manufacturing complex fuel cell systems and a lack of infrastructure to support fuel cells.
Technological advancements and their effective implementation
Much like the chicken and egg’s circular problem, we find ourselves asking what should come first: investment in building the necessary infrastructure or a focus on improving the cost-effectiveness and durability of fuel cell technologies?
The lack of infrastructure may hinder the utilization of the technology, but investing in the technology could arguably be unjustified without a supportive infrastructure. It’s a conundrum that highlights the importance of collaborative efforts between governments and private entities.
Across Japan and the United States, governments have invested significantly in companies pioneering fuel cell technology. Recognizing the necessity of this tech, these countries are not only supporting innovations, but developing the required infrastructure concurrently.
European countries also exemplify successful collaboration between the public and private sectors. Germany has already established the necessary infrastructure to support fuel cell technology, and in aligning government policies with the initiatives of private companies, they’ve created a more stable and supportive environment for sustainable tech development.
On the flip side, the United Kingdom has faced challenges in this regard. While private investment is present, there is a lack of collaboration between high-level government policy and companies developing fuel cell and electrolyzer technologies. It’s a frustrating discrepancy that hinders the successful integration of clean energy solutions into mainstream use.
What impact have fuel cells already made?
While we’re working on overcoming these barriers, fuel cell tech is already making an impact across a number of industries. For example, traditional modes of transport such as cars, trucks, airplanes and ships are all major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Fuel cells are advantageous for long-haul transportation, where vehicles cover significant distances and cannot afford extended downtime for charging. In such scenarios, the unique benefits of fuel cells, such as quick refueling and longer ranges, make them well suited.
Prominent original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), such as Toyota and BMW, are making substantial strides in fuel cell technology, marking a significant shift in the automotive industry’s landscape.
Toyota, with its extensive research program focused on fuel cell technology, has been a pioneering force, particularly in the Asian market where hydrogen holds substantial importance. The MRI (Mirai) model is a great example of Toyota’s commitment to fuel cell development, demonstrating the company's long-term dedication to advancing hydrogen-based solutions.
Also, BMW has introduced the xi5, a fuel cell passenger vehicle, specifically a four-by-four model. While the widespread adoption of hydrogen fuel cell passenger vehicles may not be imminent, it is encouraging to see major automotive players recognizing the potential of fuel cells and investing in cleantech research programs.
These influential brands are shaping not only the market landscape but also influencing broader societal and governmental attitudes toward environmental sustainability. We saw it with electric vehicles and how Tesla’s efforts transformed the market perception, influenced consumer preferences and, in turn, encouraged other companies to follow suit. This, too, is a great demonstration of corporate responsibility and a recognition of the urgent need for innovative solutions to address environmental challenges.
Next steps for the fuel cell industry
While great strides have been made, the impact could be far greater if fuel cells’ full potential was unlocked.
Firstly, it’s important to note that there is no silver bullet technology to address climate change. Instead, what's needed is a multi-energy approach: a combination of different technologies and innovations are needed to achieve clean and sustainable energy solutions.
Next, while the fuel cell industry is attracting innovation and investment globally, continued research and development efforts are required to uncover new improvements and findings. And for this, we need increased funding both for innovation and infrastructure, particularly for expanding refueling and charging stations for transportation, which can enhance the practicality and adoption of fuel cells in various sectors.
We also need to embrace more collaborative efforts between governments and private entities globally. Only then can we foster an environment for innovation, infrastructure development and the successful integration of clean energy solutions into mainstream use.
Finally, we must not forget the power of public perception. High-profile research programs and major brands contributing to technological advancements can all generate positive public awareness and support for sustainable technologies. This, in turn, plays a crucial role in shaping government policies, especially when it comes to complex and innovative tech like fuel cell technology.
Just as the egg relies on the chicken for incubation and protection, public understanding and support are essential for the growth and implementation of technologies like fuel cells and ensure that government funding and policy support is sustained.
Only when we disregard whether it was the chick or egg that came first – with multiple challenges that influence each other and must be addressed simultaneously – will we make progress in the widespread adoption of this promising technology.
About the author:
Dr. Tom Mason, CEO & CTO at Bramble Energy, is an experienced engineer with a demonstrated history of developing and commercializing novel high-impact technologies with a global reach, including a revolutionary advance in hydrogen fuel cells. Completing his PhD at University College London in 2013, Tom led the engineering and manufacturing development of the innovative PCBFC™ as a postdoctoral research associate. As a co-founder of Bramble Energy, Tom joined the company as a director and chief technology officer when the company spun out of UCL and Imperial College in 2016 before taking up the role of CEO in September 2017.