Something about the picture inspires awe. On scales nearly incomprehensible to a human, vast pillars of hydrogen and helium stretch for light years. The Orion Nebula as imaged by Hubble is the birthplace of stars. The Orion Nebula also symbolizes the future of Homo sapiens. Hydrogen, the zygote of the universe, is about to revolutionize technology and open an incredible new chapter in human history. When tracing a technology back to its roots, we often find threads so unique and diverse that it is a wonder they converge at all. The threads to fuel cell technology can be traced from the later part of the 19th century, from the Apollo 13 and the space shuttle, from today’s increasing demands for power from the smallest electronic devise to the energy and economic infrastructures of the world, and from water. In molecules of water we find reservoirs of energy stored in the covalent bonds between two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. Hydrolysis is the creation of oxygen and hydrogen gas by running an electrical current through water. Working backward, the chemical reaction of oxygen and hydrogen results in water and electricity. The process is clean, because no combustion is involved. The resulting flow of electricity promises to power our vehicles, supercharge our electronic devices, and revolutionize the distribution of energy, all while having a lesser impact on the environment. The principles of the fuel cell were discovered in 1839 by Sir William Grove. Several years later, the internal combustion engine was invented and work on fuel cells basically ceased until NASA exploited their usefulness in the Apollo space program of the 1960s and 1970s. NASA has since made use of the technology in the space shuttle program. Private industry did not have a significant interest until the United States, Canada and Japan began increasing fuel cell R & D funding in the 1980s. Since then, there have been many remarkable breakthroughs in the technology. The field has split into several competing technologies:
- PEM – proton exchange membrane
- AFC – alkaline fuel cell
- PAFC – phosphoric acid fuel cell
- SOFC – solid oxide fuel cell
- MCFC – molten carbonate fuel cell
PEM fuel cells are the leading contender.
Today, we use internal combustion engines to run our cars, batteries to run our electronic devices, and non-renewable resources to power our power grid. Fuel cells can replace them all.
Ballard and Daimler-Chrysler are building buses that run on pure hydrogen. The hydrogen tank sits on the roof of the bus. Because buses are fueled at central depots, the lack of a hydrogen fuel infrastructure is less of a concern. The major automakers have announced plans for fuel cell cars on the market by as early as 2003. General Motors has plans to be the first company to cell a million such vehicles, in 2010. Spurred by the debate over global warming and California’s strict environmental laws, the major automakers are in a race to fit cars and trucks with fuel cells.
The California energy crisis has highlighted a growing problem in this nature. Our current electric infrastructure is not sufficient for our growing energy demands. The idea of distributed power has emerged as business have worked to protect themselves against disastrous brown and black-outs. Stationary fuel-cell technology has evolved faster than portable fuel-cell technology. Specifications are less rigid. The idea of a power plant in every backyard is getting a push. GE has introduced the first fuel-cell for residential homes. Other companies are working on modules that can quickly scale to meet increasing energy needs in a region. BPA is testing a fuel cell at a sewage treatment plant in Portland, OR. With technology requiring more energy than ever before, businesses are beginning to turn to fuel-cells for backup and primary power at their facilities.
Perhaps the least visible but most likely to affect us first. The Electric Fuel company has produced a fuel cell for cell phones, now selling for $9.95 at consumer electronics stores such as Circuit City. Portability and the increasing energy demands of modern electronic devices are being hampered by useful battery life, which has been unable to keep up with the demand. New batteries are on the horizon but they offer only incremental increases in energy. Fuel cells promise to provide cell phones and laptops with energy life measured in months or years. The military is also interested in fuel cells for the battlefield. Portable power sources must last days or weeks – current batteries last at most only a few days.
Companies to Watch
There are literally dozens of fuel cell companies in the industry. Most are in the research and development stage, with products not expected to be available for several years. Several are expected to have products available for market in 2002 and 2003. One a few have products available today, most for hobbyists. As an investment, the industry is high risk. Over the past two years many of the companies’ stock prices have run-up in excitement and anticipation for the future. However, this run-up has result in astronomical valuations. When buying such stocks, it is important to remember that results are five to ten years away. The industry is a long term investment. Also consider that when fuel-cells begin to take off, the industry will likely begin to consolidate. Today’s winners may be tomorrow’s cheap takeover. That said, the first two of the following picks are proving that bigger may in fact be better, and the last two are low priced stocks with promising futures.
Ballard Power Systems
Ballard is currently the largest fuel cell company. They are primarily using PEM fuel cell technology. Recently, Daimler-Chrysler announced that they would be purchasing several fuel cells from Ballard to use in metro buses in Canada. Nissan and Honda have also reached fuel cell supply agreements with Ballard for automobile applications while the remaining automobile companies have licensed Ballard’s technology for testing. Ballard has several other ventures with other companies for other fuel cell uses. For example, Ballard is working on stationary applications for businesses and homes as well as portable applications including fuel cells for camping.
FuelCell Energy, Inc.
FuelCell Energy recently received an order from the state of Connecticut to provide fuel cells for the state’s Clean Energy Fund project. The fuel cells will be used for a powerplant.
Manhattan Scientifics Inc.
This company is currently working on a fuel cell for cordless vacuums. The devices solve the problem of cords that tangle or do not reach far enough. To fuel the device, a small vessel of hydrogen can be refilled and inserted into the vacuum. The company is also at work on other portable applications, such as fueling electric bicycles.
Electric Fuel Corporation
Electric Fuel Corporation has release one of the first fuel cells available to the mass consumer. The devices replaces batteries for select cell phones and can recharge the batteries up to three times per cartridge. Recently, increases in production volumes resulted in a price cut per cartridge of $9.95. Since this announcement the stock price has risen around 70 cents from a previous level of $3.00. Other companies to watch are infrastructure companies such as hydrogen tank and component builders. As of yet, there are few companies that produce hydrogen, but in the future, expect the major oil companies to begin embracing hydrogen as an alternative source of revenue.
Creating the Hydrogen Future is not going to be easy. Like the chicken and the egg, hydrogen will not be produced in great quantities until a supporting infrastructure (such as hydrogen stations for vehicles) can be build, and a supporting infrastructure will not be built until hydrogen is produced in great enough quantities. Add to this the problems of handling hydrogen, including its explosive characteristics and low energy unit per volume, and the world has its work cut out for it.
However, it is with growing certainty that observers predict a world economy and power grid based on hydrogen. The imminent depletion of fossil fuels; the rapidly increasing need for energy; the proliferation of portable digital devices such as digital cameras, cell phones, and laptops; all suggest that something new needs to be developed. Our current infrastructure simply cannot handle the load. The recent energy crisis in California has only punctuated this problem and brought it to the national limelight.
What is needed for the Hydrogen Infrastructure?
Pure hydrogen is of course the preferred fuel for the Hydrogen Future. However, there are several problems with this at this current time: storage, safety, and transportation. These are for the most part engineering problems and are expected to be solved within the next several years. Until then, the idea is to have hydrogen carried around in bonded form and then distilled through various methods before being inserted in the fuel cell devices. For example, the first fuel cell cars will likely be based on methanol or gasoline, of which hydrogen is a primary component. A “reformer” is necessary to separate the hydrogen from the rest of the molecule in these fuels. Once the hydrogen has been reformed it is sent into the fuel cell.
The automobile fuel infrastructure in the United States consists primarily of gasoline stations. Stations for hydrogen are very different and the infrastructure will need to be built from scratch. In the interim, current gas stations can be easily outfitted for methanol distribution. This may provide a step-by-step approach to reaching the pure hydrogen infrastructure
Hydrogen must be transported from the production plant to central depots or stations themselves. Development continues of storage vessels for compressed hydrogen gas, liquid gas, and solid-state (including hydrogen storage in carbon fibers). The next several years will likely see breakthrough after breakthrough in this part of the infrastructure.
As previous described, there needs to be devices that will make use of hydrogen. The uses for hydrogen are widespread…and expected to increase in the coming decade.
The Hydrogen Investor [defunct]
This site is the number one portal for information about fuel cells and the Hydrogen Economy. The site includes great depth and is always kept up to date. Created by David Redstone, his passion for the subject is self-evident. However, he wisely keeps objective reporting and commentary separate. This site was my jump-off point because it pointed me to information about the technology and specific companies at work on fuel cell technology and applications.
BPA is a power authority in the Pacific Northwest. They are one of the first groups to have begun testing fuel cells for power generation in an area primarily powered by hydroelectric and nuclear power systems. They are currently running a fuel-cell project at a sewage treatment plant in Portland, Oregon. Another project will provide fuel-cell units to homes and businesses for testing of the technology. I discovered them through news stories at CNN.com and The Hydrogen Investor. Since then I have been in touch with the administration and they have been helpful in providing information through email and snail mail about the technology and their projects.
Ballard is currently the fuel-cell company with the largest market capitalization. Their site has a wealth of information about fuel-cells and their current products and research.
The first companies to provide a fuel-cell for cell phones available to the mass consumer. Their site, latest news, and current stock price has provided a wealth of information about the use of fuel-cells for portable power generation and evidence for the future potential of this technology.
I was able to find an eBook on the subject of fuel cells on Barnes&Noble.com. This process was a powerful demonstration of the knowledge distribution capabilities of the Internet and digital content.
A Fuel Cell primer: The Promise and Pitfalls, eBook, Rev 6, January 2, 2001
Introductory eBook regarding this technology.
The online arm of CNBC provided analyst fuel-cell company picks and more information for me to research.
I used Quicken.com to research several different fuel-cell companies, track their stock prices, and gather the companies’ latest news and press releases. The portfolio tracker on Quicken.com is a great organization and summary tool.
My business partners and I have purchased a stake in our first fuel-cell company through BuyandHold.com. The site offers 3000 stocks for purchase at a flat rate of $9.99 a month or $2.99 per transaction.