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Fuel Cell Technology Breakthrough Sought in the UK by Carbon Trust

The Carbon Trust is today launching a UK bid for a breakthrough in fuel cell technology, which could open up a global fuel cell market worth over $180 billion by 2050, according to new analysis.

The “Polymer Fuel Cells Challenge” aims to accelerate the commercialisation of breakthrough UK technology that could see the mainstream cost effective (mass) production of fuel cell powered cars and buses, as well as providing electricity and heat in homes and business. These kinds of mass market applications could be saving the UK up to 7 million tonnes of CO2 a year in 2050, equivalent to taking two million of today’s cars off the road.

Launching the initiative, Dr Robert Trezona, Head of Research and Development at the Carbon Trust, said: “Fuel cells have been ten years away from a real breakthrough for the past 20 years. This is a critical moment for UK fuel cell technology as emerging markets combine with technology cost breakthroughs to create a golden opportunity to launch world-beating products onto a massive global market. Our initiative aims to drive forward the commercialisation of the UK’s unique fuel cell expertise which will play a crucial role in the UK’s Clean Tech Revolution both cutting carbon and creating jobs and economic value."

The initiative aims to deliver the critical reduction in fuel cell system costs that must be achieved to make mass market deployment a reality. New Carbon Trust analysis shows that if substantial cuts can be achieved, the global market could be worth over $26bn in 2020 and over $180bn in 2050. The UK share of this market could be $1bn in 2020 rising to $19bn in 2050.

David Hart, Head of Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Research, Centre for Energy Policy and Technology, Imperial College, said: “For many years fuel cell and hydrogen technologies have been expected to become a cornerstone of a low-carbon, more efficient energy system, but the cost, durability and performance of current fuel cell systems remain unattractive in most applications. The Polymer Fuel Cells Challenge is an exciting opportunity to address these issues with a fresh perspective and co-ordinated approach to make polymer fuel cells an everyday commercial reality.”

Celia Greaves, Fuel Cells UK, said: "We warmly welcome the Carbon Trust's new Polymer Fuel Cells Challenge. The UK is home to a number of world class fuel cell companies and research centres, and substantive IP has already been created in this area. Initiatives such as this from the Carbon Trust are vital to strengthening the UK's position and ensuring that the UK is innovative and remains competitive in this growing global industry."

Current fuel cell system costs are still too high by a factor of at least ten for widespread uses. These costs could be brought down in the future through volume production, but projections show that even then, with today’s technology, costs would remain too high by 30-40% for most markets. The Polymer Fuel Cells Challenge will aim to support those breakthroughs that will allow high-volume costs to come down by 35%, making fuel cell systems attractive for mass markets.

Fuel cells efficiently convert the chemical energy contained in a fuel directly into electricity – they produce electricity like a battery but are fuelled like an engine or a boiler. Fuel cells are already marketed around the world, with sales growing at over 60% a year – they are used to power forklift trucks, mobile phone masts or provide power in camper vans. However, they currently remain too expensive to be more widespread.

By 2030, polymer fuel cells worldwide could be saving every year more CO2 than the UK will emit.

The £8 million Polymer Fuel Cell Challenge will be split into two phases. A call for proposals opening today ( will lead to the selection of up to three novel ideas, offering up to £1m per project to further develop and prove them. If one of these demonstrates its potential for lower-cost fuel cell systems, the Carbon Trust will then co-invest up to £5m in the technology to develop it commercially.

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