Fuel Cell (FC) Watch

After a brief moment of celebrity as star player in President Bushâ''s fantasy of a â''hydrogen economyâ''â''a momentary box office hit that played just long enough to kill the electric carâ''fuel cells fell out of vogue. But the compact electrochemical devices that generate electricity by a kind of reverse electrolysis still have the potential to be a game changer. In some important respects they are closer to commercialization than photovoltaic cells, and if they should suddenly start down the runway and lift off the way wind energy did a decade ago, they could revolutionize both the automotive and power sectors.

A report released this week by Fuel Cell Today takes stock and offers some suggestive hints. All such reports must be taken with a â''big grain of salt,â'' to use a cliché much beloved in the analyst trade; having done a bit of this work myself on the side, I can tell you that a lot of the numbers you read in such reports are pretty much made up. This is no secret. But Fuel Cell Today describes itself as â''the leading organization for market-based intelligence on the fuel cell industry,â'' and its findings seem plausible and interesting. Among them:

â'¢ Global shipments of fuel cells increased 50 percent in 2008, to an estimated 18,000 units

â'¢ Direct Methanol cells accounted for a growing share, putting a squeeze on standard hydrogen types

â'¢ Through the third quarter, venture capital support remained strong, but dropped sharply in the fourth quarter

â'¢ Happily, substantial government support seems assured in the coming years

Specifically, the European Unionâ''s Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Joint Technology Initiative will spend 500 million euros (about $666 million) on fuel cell development in the five years to 2013. Japanâ''s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) is spending $1 billion, and Germanyâ''besides participating in the EUâ''s JTIâ''has its own $2-billion, 10-year program ($200 million per year). The United States at present is slated to spend $130 million/year for three years.

Europe accounts for will over half the worldâ''s fuel cell market, and its share grew markedly last year, as did the role of its manufacturers vis-à-vis U.S. competitors. The major emerging markets, in Fuel Cell Todayâ''s estimation, are India, Latin America, and the Middle East.

As in most areas of green technology, the United States lags well behind Europe and Japan, despite its vigorous entrepreneurial culture, because of 30-plus years of governmental neglect. But even so, after years of upheaval and shaking out in the fuel cell industry, the United States still has two very solid players, one of them a United Technologies subsidiary, the other a determined independent. The latter, FuelCellEnergy, has secured impressive contracts in Japan and South Korea to build power-plant-scale fuel cell installations.

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