Friday, August 25, 2006

No fuel like an old fuel cell

Science Business
Michael Kenward
August 6, 2006

It is nice to see social scientists showing interest in technology and innovation. But their credibility plummets when they confuse their energy source with their energy carrier.

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) recently put out a press release under the title "Fuel cells - a neglected clean source of energy". There is just one problem with this item, which reports research done by Professor Chris Hendry and a group at the Cass Business School, London. Professor Hendry believes that, according to the press release, "Fuel cells are a genuine 'clean' technology."

This is wrong. Fuel cells are just a new type of battery. They are a way of turning fuel into electricity. That "fuel" can be hydrogen, Professor Hendry's preferred option, or it can be something else.

This is important for a number of reasons. To begin with, Professor Hendry seems to think that "re-investment in nuclear technology is likely to squeeze out the investment necessary to make fuel cells competitive with existing energy sources and with other non-nuclear alternative energy options".

Where will the fuel for those fuel cells come from? After all, unlike oil, hydrogen does not grow in rocks. You have to make it. One way is to take a nuclear power station and split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Another way, and one favoured by the likes of BP, is to take coal or heavy oil, strip out the carbon in those hydrocarbons and make hydrogen, or another fuel that fuel cells can eat. This, by the way, means that you still have to do something with all that carbon.

Paradoxically, investment in nuclear power could be just the thing to make fuel cells catch on. If, and it is a big if, a reactor can make cheap hydrogen, then that could be one way of running a transport system on the back of nuclear power.

The people behind the project may well know that hydrogen is but an energy carrier, after all, they did carry out an "in-depth analysis of existing records and 70 interviews in the UK, Germany, North America and Japan," but neither the press release nor the "Plain English summary" on offer at the project's web site, give any indication of this.

One reason for mentioning this here is that Professor Hendry also likes to write about commercialising university research, and has written a paper on the topic, for Spectra, the Journal of Management Consultancies Association. (We can't find the paper there, so had to rely on the version linked to the project's web site, which means we can't give a proper reference.) This article uses fuel cells as an example of how the government is getting it wrong in supporting innovation that comes from the UK's universities.

Here we read

"Compared with other newly emerging technology sectors, there are an unusually large number of spinouts from UK universities, reflecting science funding for fuel cells in the 1990s. Most have also received some kind of government grant, especially DTI SMART awards. What all the firms stress now is the need for government-funded projects to stimulate the development of a market and a specialised supply chain "to get the industry over the hump"."

Fair enough, as is the punchline that "The UK, alone among the four nations leading in fuel cell technology, handicaps itself by failing to use public procurement as a lever during this critical development phase." (The other three nations are USA, Germany and Japan.) But it doesn't help if you get the wrong end of the stick on what it is you want funded.

The paper repeats the canard that "Fuel cells are a clean, quiet, reliable, and resource-efficient energy source, with a range of applications in the automotive, portable electronics, and power generation markets." Apart from the fuel/carrier error, it is doubtful if fuel cells are inherently "resource efficient". That depends on how you make and use them, as well as the fuel they eat.

So, if someone comes along and asks you to invest in fuel cells, by all means look at the proposition. There is little doubt that the technology is going places. But don't be suckered into believing that fuel cells are an alternative to nuclear power, or even to solar energy and wind power. They aren't. Fuel cells could, though, be a way for all of these genuine sources of energy, to reach new markets.

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