UK seeks to keep lead in fuel cell technology

19 February 2012 Britain is staking its claim to lead the race to find a carbon-free car engine by bringing two innovative hydrogen power companies together. Acal Energy, which has developed a cheap fuel cell, and ITM Power, an Aim-listed maker…

19 February 2012

Britain is staking its claim to lead the race to find a carbon-free car engine by bringing two innovative hydrogen power companies together.

Acal Energy, which has developed a cheap fuel cell, and ITM Power, an Aim-listed maker of hydrogen for fuel, have been given £500,000 – with the promise of up to £5m more – by the Carbon Trust, a government-funded body, to combine their technologies to create the breakthrough needed for mass market scale. They are working with an unnamed Japanese carmaker.

Fuel cells convert the chemical energy from hydrogen into electricity through a reaction with oxygen in an arrangement similar to a battery, with the only waste being water and heat. They usually require platinum catalysts immersed in an expensive chemical soup to work. Acal’s FlowCath uses cheaper materials and a regenerator.

Francis Bacon, the British scientist, developed the first successful fuel cell in 1932 and the liquid cathode concept was first demonstrated in the 1950s. Andrew Creeth, co-founder of Acal Energy, used his knowledge of detergents – he worked for Unilever – to find a cheaper and more robust system.

ITM Power, which manufactures hydrogen from water and makes hydrogen power systems, has developed a unique membrane, used to turn water into hydrogen or create electricity from hydrogen, reducing the weight and size of systems.

Ben Graziano, technology commercialisation manager at the Carbon Trust, said between them they could cut the cost of fuel cell power to less than $37 per kW generated, making it competitive with conventional engines.

“It is a very big opportunity. Fuel cells will have … massive mass-market applications. The UK has world-leading technology.”

He said the industry would be worth up to $1bn in the UK and $26bn globally by 2020, and up to $19bn in the UK and $180bn globally by 2050.

Fuel cells have been used in Nasa spacecraft, US submarines, fork-lift trucks and to provide back-up power systems. Daimler introduced a London bus in 2011 powered by a fuel cell but decades of research by car companies have yet to produce a model that can be produced cheaply enough for the mass market.

However, Byron McCormick, an Acal Energy director who spent 25 years researching fuel cells at General Motors said the time was ripe.

“We expect very high petroleum prices to stay because there is more demand from more countries. Electric cars have distance restrictions. That leaves us fuel cells. All of us [in the car industry] have recognised that for a long time.”

He said the biggest constraint – apart from the upfront cost – was a lack of hydrogen infrastructure, filling stations and the like.

But he added that governments were beginning to address that, especially in Germany and Japan, and that the chemical and oil industry produced vast amounts of hydrogen and handled it safely.

“It is a mature technology being deployed in a different way. There is a huge amount of hydrogen being dealt with.”

The aim is to have a car fuel cell available by the end of 2014 and a stationary power product a year later.

Simon Bourne, chief technology officer of ITM, said early tests showed the combination of technologies could match the performance of the best technology on the market. “And we have only just started”.

Solvay, the Belgian chemical company, is a significant shareholder in Acal Energy. It has installed a fuel cell to drive a pump at its hydrogen peroxide plant in Warrington, near the Runcorn home of Acal Energy, to allow testing and monitoring.

ITM has two fuel-cell powered vans that are being tested by DHL, the logistics company, and Autoglass, the windscreen repairers. In January it signed a deal with Marks and Spencer to generate hydrogen on-site at a distribution centre for fuel cells in its fork-lift trucks in a six-week trial.

The Carbon Trust has already given each company £1m. Acal Energy, founded in 2004, has also received £12m from private investors, including Sumitomo of Japan and an unnamed Japanese carmaker.

ITM, based in Sheffield, has not made a profit since listing in 2004. It has raised £45m from investors and the shares hit 46p on Friday.

The Carbon Trust has also given £500,000 to academics at Imperial College and University College London who have researched the mass production of fuel cells. Their stack design could cut costs.

Mr Graziano said the UK government’s H2 Mobility alliance, which includes Daimler, GM, Air Liquide, Intelligent Energy and Johnson Matthey would keep the country at the forefront of fuel cell development.