High Costs Hamper Fuel Cell Commercialization

The commercial viability of the fuel cell is heavily dependant on cost reductions that assume greater significance as worldwide concern for rapidly depleting non-renewable fossil fuels increases. Fuel cell costs are augmented by a few factors. These systems use expensive heat resistant materials that enable smooth functioning in very high temperatures, and they rely on precious metals, such as platinum, as catalysts. Moreover, conversion of available fuels to hydrogen requires expensive reformers.

Palo Alto, California – September 3, 2003 [SolarAccess.com] All fuel cells are either powered by fuels that are converted to hydrogen, or they are powered by hydrogen itself. This appears to be an advantage, because hydrogen is an abundant element with the potential to replace fossil fuels as an energy source. Still, this element has its drawbacks, says a new study. It is expensive and currently requires high costs for storage and delivery. According to Technical Insights, a business unit of the consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, the infrastructure required to launch a full-scale hydrogen economy does not currently exist, and setting up a hydrogen-fueling network further increases the expense of fuel cell systems. The company cites that hydrogen usually needs to be stored under high pressure, is relatively heavy, and does not lend itself to convenient refueling; and storage of hydrogen in liquid form requires high energy to ensure safety. “At present, it is far less expensive to use power from the grid and other traditional sources,” said Technical Insights Analyst Jayanthi Kamalaratnam. “Non-traditional fueling infrastructures are needed, which translate into high costs.” Technical Insights’ analysis suggests that as the storage tanks are relatively large, liquid hydrogen is not suitable for use in automobiles. In transportation systems, converting non-hydrogen fuels, such as natural gas and ethanol, to hydrogen adds bulk and expense. “Hydrogen storage still remains a significant challenge, as the fuel has a very low energy density at normal ambient conditions, making its storage difficult in any mobile storage vessel,” said Kamalaratnam. “Researchers are investigating metal hydrides and carbon nanotubes as possible solutions.” Technical Insights maintains that the success of fuel cells will depend on proactive consumer education and creation of awareness, as these power-producing systems are mostly used in consumer-oriented applications such as transportation systems and stationary residential and portable devices. According to the company, consumers need to be convinced that fuel cells are capable of providing environment-friendly electricity and are highly efficient and reliable in the long term. Assurances on proper infrastructure, and having qualified, skilled personnel to provide maintenance services are likely to boost market acceptance. Reducing cost remains the key commercial and technological challenge. Technical Insights will hold a conference call at 3:00 p.m. (EDT)/ 12:00 p.m. (PDT) on September 9, 2003 to provide a summary and analysis of the latest developments in fuel cells.
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