2002 Fuel Cell Seminar

Fuel Cell Seminar
Nov 18-21, Palm Springs, CA

The Fuel Cell Seminar has been held every two years* since 1978. Until recently, it’s been essentially a scientific forum. The 2000 event (in Portland OR) saw a major change into a full blown trade show. That trend continued this time, with 50% larger attendance (3000) and many more than twice the number of exhibitors (125). The event is very international, with huge contingents from Europe and Asia. For the first time, simultaneous translation in Japanese was provided. (*From now on, they’re going annual–the next one will be in Miami, Nov ’03.)

The mood this time, however, was distinctly different. Recall that January 2000 started with a runaway boom in stock prices and excitement over fuel cells. By November, that surge was still strong, and the event had the feel of a celebration. In contrast, this year the mood was almost grim, or at least very subdued. Beyond the effects of the wider economic doldrums, the reality has set in that cost and performance of fuel cell technology just aren’t there yet. Fuel cells are still years from being ready for a meaningful ramp-up in commercial market penetration. Investment bankers and venture capitalists, who were very much a presence in 2000, were few and far between this time.

A great many of the exhibitors were suppliers to the industry, offering membranes, catalysts, pumps and valves, test equipment, etc. Thus the comment that people were there to sell to each other, not to sell fuel cells to real customers. (The only customers appear to be governments–see below.) It is possible to spin this positively–companies like 3-M and Agilent wouldn’t be bothered if they didn’t see a big opportunity down the road. The large attendance could be viewed in the same light. The saying goes that it’s a matter of when, not if [that fuel cells will be a practical reality on a large commercial scale].

Keynote Address
S. David Freeman was blunt (as usual) in his keynote address–fuel cells have not achieved financial viability; the fuel cell car is a huge publicity stunt–not yet a practical reality; and distributed generation (via fuel cells) doesn’t have the political appeal that renewable energy enjoys. He urged the industry to pay more attention to the question of fuels for fuel cells, and suggested that it’s in everyone’s interest to deploy hydrogen burning IC engines, to build up the hydrogen infrastructure independent of and in parallel with fuel cell development.

Four keynote lectures followed:
– DOE Fossil Energy Fuel Cell Program (Victor Der for George Rudins)
FE spends $250 million/year for stationary fuel cell RD&D, mostly on SECA and FC-Hybrids. SECA is the initiative whose goal is $400/kw planar solid oxide fuel cell. Contracts have been awarded to four industry teams to pursue various technical strategies.

– Stationary Perspective (Jerry Leitman, Fuel Cell Energy)
Stationary plants are commercially available today, and offer dramatic efficiency and emissions improvements over engines and combined cycle plants.

– Transportation Perspective (Andrew Schell, for Ferdinand Panik, DaimlerChrysler)
Fuel cells in transportation are a necessity to gain the “freedoms” (i.e. of choice, from emissions, from oil dependence, etc). Applications will ramp up over the next 7 years to become truly commercial. New fuel insfrastructures must be deployed. (In January, DOE replaced the PNGV with FreedomCAR, concentrating on hydrogen and fuel cells

– Portable Perspective (Laryy DuBois, SRI)
There is no Moore’s Law for batteries. The price paid per kw is high compared with large scale power, creating an opportunity for fuel cells. Drivers include longer runtime, fast recharge, unlimited recharge, etc. A dozen companies at least plan to be selling products sometime in the next 3 years. Concentration is on direct methanol or PEM, with at least one SOFC to run on butane. The competition isn’t standing still, with advances in batteries and ultracaps, as well as work on nano-heat engines and RF scavenging. (I have a pdf of this presentation-2MB)

– Fuel Perspective (Don Huberts, Shell Hydrogen)
Stationary, Transportation and Portable each have different requirements for refueling infrastructure, and no single answer will suffice. There needs to be a mix of technologies, primary energy sources, and delivery means.

Program Overviews
A series of presentations outlined programs and budgets deveoted to fuel cell developments funded by the European Commission, Germany, Japan, and the US (DOE). Strong long term commitments were evident, with expressed goals of meeting Kyoto requirements and reducing oil dependence through hydrogen and fuel cells. $100s of millions are budgeted. Notably, they all talk in terms of gradual progress up the adoption curve, with the bulk of activity over the next 6-10 years in demos and projects.

In addition to over 230 poster papers, parallel sessions included presentations on PEM R&D, SOFC, Commercialization and Demonstrations, Fuel Processing and DMFC/Portable. Many of the papers were highly technical and specialized, while others were little more than general overviews for companies and programs (some bordering on infommercials).

Reflecting on the general state of the industry, governments appear to be the main customers for fuel cell companies, along with the big carmakers who are doing demos, partnerships, and their own development programs (GM was curiously quiet at this event). Otherwise, it just seems to be a swarm of similar sounding programs, and it’s nearly impossible to see any real differentiation that would indicate a possible eventual winner.

This is especially true in PEM, and also to some extent in SOFC. Fuel Cell Energy, of course, is the only US molten carbonate company, and they are just introducing a new and improved series of models into their 12 MW order backlog. They are “commercial”, but price remains an issue, as well as perceived technical risk on the part of buyers (the US Navy does seem to be keen on them for shipboard use). Meanwhile, companies like Plug and Nuvera have quietly stopped talking about residential.

As the long slow march of this technology continues, maybe the traditional approaches are just too difficult. Almost everyone seems to be pursuing the same old stacks with bolts around the edge, and the same handful of reformer technologies. Meanwhile, a number of “stealth” developments are underway, out of the spotlight, by people who are thinking different. They may just come along with novel new approaches that break through the age-old dilemmas of cost, manufacturability, and performance. One is almost tempted to think that if something is being presented at conferences, it’s not cutting edge, and it’s not the answer. (And it’s a safe bet that companies that do make presentations are probably not telling us about their really good stuff.)

Here is an example of such a possible “end-run”: Microcell Corp had a booth showing a very different configuration for a fuel cell system. Very few details were given, but they did tell me their cost goal is less than $100/kw. The cells are long thin hollow tubes (less than 1 mm in diameter) whose wall consists of the anode, electrolyte, and cathode, and which can be made by extrusion. The cells can be arrayed in bundles in a tube and header configuration, and high power densities are predicted. The company is in the 2nd year of a 3 year ATP grant, with cofunding investment by Pepco.

Ceramic Fuel Cell Ltd, of Australia, presented its new all ceramic SOFC stack technology which looks very promising. Temperature cycling is the big issue for SOFC’s and their latest set of innovations have resulted in a simple rugged design.

References and Publications:

Abstracts of the 2002 Fuel Cell Seminar–the book is 2 ” thick; also on a CD, available for purchase ($55 and $30, respectively). Contact:
Catherine Porterfield

European Integrated Hydrogen Project
White paper: “European Transport Policy for 2010 : time to decide ”

New releases (at the seminar):
2002 Annual Progress Report, H2, FC and Infrastructure Technologies Programs, 400 page book, or CD. Also online at

The new 6th edition of the DOE Fuel Cell Handbook (Oct 2002) was handed out at the Seminar. This comprehensive textbook (450 pages) can be ordered on CD at

Overview of Portable Power
The German company Smart Fuel Cell is among the many contenders in portable power, and appear to be making good progress towards commercialization. They were listed among Scientific American’s 50 Business Leaders (Dec issue)

They cite this helpful overview of the market on their website:

[web tips]
— The NETL website has its fuel cell materials under the Strategic Center for Natural Gas. Look under “End-Use” to find fuel cells.

— The DOD has a website which details a major residential PEM demo program, as well as the Army’s Fuel Cell Test & Evaluation Center (FCTEC), operated by Concurrent Technologies Corporation (CTC) in Johnstown, PA

By coincidence, this article appeared right after the Seminar

More Rationalization Of Fuel-Cell Companies Expected
By Lynne Olver, Dow Jones Newswires — Nov 25, 2002

VANCOUVER — The fuel-cell industry is entering an “important phase” in which more corporate consolidation can be expected, according to Pierre Rivard, president and chief executive of Hydrogenics Corp. (HYGS). Rivard said the PC and telecom industries tend to have a few dominant players, and he expects a similar pattern in the fuel-cell business over the next three years.

“It’s typical that, post-consolidation, you might see two, three, perhaps four emerging, larger-sized companies and to me that’s very healthy,” Rivard told Dow Jones.

. . . . The article goes on to describe Plug Power’s acquisition of H Power, and Global Thermoelectric’s interest in finding a buyer or major partner for its SOFC business.,,BT_CO_20021125_005129-search,00.html?collection=autowire%2F30day&vql_string=olver%3Cin%3E%28article%2Dbody%29

Small Modular Biopower System

Beginning in 1999, Community Power Corp (CPC) joined with NREL and Shell Renewables to develop a new generation of small modular biopower systems (SMB), designed to replace conventional diesel generators and to free communities from dependence on diesel fuel, with its high cost and environmental damage.

CPC’s fully automated SMB system can use a variety of biomass fuels to generate electricity and thermal energy for rural communities, enterprises and social services, and usually solving a agricultural residue disposal problem at the same time. The initial prototype SMB, rated at 12 1/2 kWe, is performing well in a Philippine village, since it’s commissioning on 2 April 2001.

With support from the Calif Energy Commission, CPC is now installing a second SMB on the Hoopa Valley Indian Tribe reservation in northern California. Fueled with forest residue, the unit will supply heat and power to a greenhouse, and CO2 enriched exhaust gases will also aid plant growth.

CPC’s advanced design, downdraft gasifier with fully integrated and automatic controls, produces an extremely clean combustible gas from a variety of woody fuels. The “producer” gas is conditioned and fed into a standard internal combustion engine genset for conversion to mechanical, electrical, and thermal power. Future systems will be adapted to SOFC fuel cells, microturbines, stirling and other IC engines.

Specifications and Features
– Combined heat and power operation for rural electrification and distributed generation applications;
– Environmentally friendly, non-condensing system without scrubbers, effluents or hazardous wastes;
– Fully automatic, closed-loop control of all components including gasifier, gas conditioning and genset;
– Dispatchable power within one minute of auto-startup ? uses no diesel fuel or gasoline;
– Fuel flexible: wood pellets, coconut shells, wood chips, corn cobs, palm nut shells;
– Electrical output in blocks from 5kWe to 25kWe; 120 and 240 VAC; 50 and 60 Hz;
– Modular, transportable, no need for on-site buildings or waste water disposal, 1 day installation.

Remarkably, Community Power actually first identified a market and need, and then developed SMB as the technology to meet it, rather than the other way around. The founders were experienced in the electrification of offgrid communities using conventional renewable energy technologies (PV, wind).

To serve this large, demanding market, (over 4 million communities) CPC specified a system that was sized for the typical un-electrified community; automated to prevent reliance on unskilled operators; mobile to facilitate easy installation and relocation; able to operate without the co-mixing of any fossil fuels; modular and scalable; and perhaps most importantly, one that met stringent environmental requirements with no liquid effluents or toxic wastes.

Worldwide, millions of potential customers annually dispose of billions of tons of forest and agricultural residues through burning or dumping, generating both air pollution and green house gases. Where these consumers have a sustainable source of biomass residue and where fossil fuel is either very expensive or not readily available, the SMB can be the lowest cost and greenest solution.

(A point that’s often missed in thinking about 3rd world village power– a large fraction of these communities do have currency, and already spend too much of it on energy, as currently their only choices are diesel or lead-acid batteries carried to distant charging stations–both of which are expensive and dirty. These communities can afford, and will welcome, to pay for a cheaper better local source of power.)

The company website has a great deal more information:

A recent slide presentation can be found at:

Contact: Robb R. Walt 303- 933-3135
Community Power Corp., Littleton, Co

There was a recent article in the Far Eastern Economic Review regarding CPC and the use of coconuts as fuel for their small modular bipower system that has been installed in the village of Alaminos in the Phillipines.

( 1 Aug email from Walt Robb, one of the founders)

Big news: Due to our efforts, by the end of September the DOE and US Forest Service will provide CPC with a non-competitive “Phase 3” add-on to our current SMB contract. The add-on will total $3.2 million over 2 1/2 years. We must secure $1.2 million of the $3.2 as cost share (38%). The cost share can come from multiple sources. Already, we have been contacted/visited by firms interested in the possibility of leveraging these funds.
Other news:
1. We have won two SBIR’s
2. California Energy Commission has specifically stated they are ready to give us a significant add-on to scale-up our SMB platform to 50 kW and conduct many more demos in California
3. The US Army has expressed interest in our 25kW SMB and 5 kW micro-modular biomass hybrid power system for their “Zero Foot Print Camp” program
4. A Massachusetts company has proposed a $350,000 demo in the state with state funding
5. The new trailer-mounted SMB for Hoopa is exceeding all of our expectations.
6. Art is back from vacation at Deep Creek Lake and didn’t catch any fish.