While many people think first about hydrogen when they think of fuel cells, fuel cells are not limited to hydrogen. They are a set of related technologies, many of which can generate electricity from a number of hydrocarbon fuels rather than hydrogen.
I limited my recent post on the rapid rise of hydrogen stocks to just U.S.-listed companies involved in the production and use of hydrogen, leaving out foreign stocks and other fuel cell technologies for brevity.
In my research for that article, however, I came across fully ten publicly traded companies involved with either hydrogen or other types of fuel cells. Here they are, along with descriptions of the technologies drawn from the Department of Energy and company websites.
PEM Fuel Cells
The most common type of fuel cell, and the one most people think if first, is the Polymer Electrolyte Membrane or Proton-Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cell. These cells run on hydrogen at fairly low temperatures around 80°C (176°F). They have the advantage of quick start-up and good durability because of the low temperature operation. Unfortunately, they require an expensive noble metal catalyst, usually platinum, which is particularly sensitive to impurities in the hydrogen fuel.
PEM fuel cells are primarily used for fuel cells in vehicles, but have also been used in stationary applications. The most developed market is materials handling (i.e. forklifts used in warehouses.) Their lack of harmful tailpipe emissions makes them suitable for indoor use, while quick fueling and longer run time make them more suitable for heavy duty cycles than similar electric vehicles.
PEM fuel cells for transportation are typically 60 percent efficient, although the less expensive versions typically used for stationary applications are only about 35 percent efficient.
Companies producing PEM fuel cells include Ballard Power (NASD:BLDP), Plug Power (NASD:PLUG), and Proton Power Systems (LSE:PPS), and ITM Power (LSE:ITM). Ballard and Plug Power are commercial stage companies, although neither is expected to achieve profitability soon. Ballard produces PEM fuel cells for a wide variety of markets ranging in size from 1.5kw up to 500 kW. Plug Power has a range of fuel cell modules designed to fit in the battery compartment of existing materials handling equipment.
Proton Power is a demonstration stage company with a focus on hybrid electric-fuel cell drive trains for larger vehicles such as delivery trucks, buses.
Electrolyzers, Fueling, and Storage
Since pure hydrogen does not occur naturally, the hydrogen economy cannot run on fuel cells alone. A number of companies are tackling the creation of hydrogen (usually by electrolysis, or using electricity to split water in to hydrogen and oxygen), as well as fueling and storage.
Hydrogenics (NASD:HYGS) is a commercial stage company that develops and sells electrolyzers for hydrogen generation. This is often integrated with hydrogen storage and PEM fuel cells, as well as hydrogen fueling stations. It sells into both stationary power and vehicular markets. ITM Power (LSE:ITM) sells commercial electrolyzers for hydrogen generation in hydrogen fueling stations, for industrial use, or injection into natural gas pipelines. Quantum Fuel Systems Technologies Worldwide (NASD:QTWW) sells a number of alternative fuel vehicle drive-trains and parts including hydrogen fuel tanks, but most of its current sales come from natural gas vehicles.
One oddball company brought to my attention by a reader is HyperSolar, Inc (OTC:HYSR). Hypersolar is a very early stage developer of a solar powered system to directly use solar power to produce hydrogen from water. While cutting out the extra step of converting sunlight to electricity with photovoltaics before using electrolysis to split hydrogen from water may sound attractive, the company is at an extremely early development stage and does not have sufficient funding to advance its technology. It’s also not clear if the technology is more efficient at converting sunlight to hydrogen than the combination of photovoltaics and electrolyzers would be, or what the capital costs are. I can’t imagine any scenario where a long term stock market investor could make a profit on HyperSolar.
Fuel Cell Energy (NASD:FCEL), discussed below, is currently developing a fuel cell that can generate hydrogen as well as electricity from various hydrocarbon feedstocks.