Fuel cell technologies are developing rapidly and their use is spreading

By Zoe Smart

From buses and aeroplanes to robots and medical equipment such as wheelchairs, new commercial applications are constantly being developed. Although fuel cell power systems are still relatively new, the technology has moved on rapidly from the R&D (research and development) stage to commercialization.

Fuel cells rely on chemical reactions to generate energy.

Sustainable transport turns to vapour

There is a growing demand for new techniques for storing energy at the same time as addressing other concerns such as producing lower emissions and providing energy efficient alternatives to fossil fuels. Fuel cells work by converting an external fuel source such as hydrogen with an oxidant to produce a chemical reaction. There is zero impact on the environment since the only by-products of the production of electricity are water and heat.

Various manufacturers are investigating the possibilities that fuel cells can provide as recharging devices for lithium-ion batteries in electrically powered vehicles. One of the obstacles to the wider application of fuel cell technology is that hydrogen, as a particularly light gas, is difficult to store in a small space. Urban bus systems are often used to exploit the technology: they can store relatively large amounts of fuel and can be refuelled at fleet depots. Other applications for fuel cell systems include buildings, laptop computers, phones and construction machines.

By 2020 the size of the market for fuel cells has been estimated to be in the region of USD 10 billion. In recognition of the likely long-term viability of fuel cell technology, IEC TC (Technical Committee) 105: Fuel cell technologies, was set up in 2000 "with the aim of developing safety and performance related standards for fuel cell appliances". Its Secretary, Wolfgang Winkler, believes that International Standards will prove particularly helpful in opening up the market; they will reassure potential investors that the groundwork has already been done, so reducing the risk of investment.

The TC's Strategic Business Plan also stresses the importance of ensuring that International Standards aid commercialization while not hindering the development of this relatively young technology. Finally, TC 105 recognizes that it has an important role to play in encouraging National Committees to contribute to its standardization work. The resultant International Standards need to be implemented at national and regional levels in order to promote an internationally valid set of standards that will help move fuel cell technology forward.


fuel cell bus_1 Urban buses offer interesting prospects for fuel cell applications. Photo: Jeff Crandall, Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology, Inc.
tc-7_fuel_cells_cell_lrg Portable chargers; one of the many applications of fuel cell technologies. Photo: Horizon Fuel Cell Tecnologies
tc-7_fuel_cells_charger_lrg Fuel cells rely on chemical reactions to generate energy.