If the UK does not foster its fuel cell industry, it will be left behind by other countries such as Japan. Niall Firth reports on initiatives to support this fledgling sector.

Two weeks ago, at a specially convened DTI conference in London, energy minister Malcolm Wicks made a point of underlining the government's commitment to the future of fuel cells as well as the possible rewards for the UK's burgeoning fuel cell industry.

The conference — designed to highlight the government's £15m fuel cell demonstration programme — coincided with the launch of the new Low Carbon and Fuel Cell Knowledge Transfer Network. This newest member of the KTN family aims to bring together all the stakeholders in the UK's fuel cell industry and is to be managed by the UK's Centre of Excellence for low-carbon and fuel cell technologies, Cenex.

Cenex was formally established last April but the concept of a Centre of Excellence for low-carbon and fuel cell technologies arose from the recommendations by the Automotive Innovation and Growth Team (AIGT) in a report of November 2002. The AIGT brought together leading figures from the UK automotive sector to identify the issues likely to have the greatest impact on the long-term profitability and productivity of the sector. It was decided that the UK automotive sector had to respond competitively to the challenges posed by the transition to low-carbon and fuel cell technologies already underway.

According to Cenex's chief executive Robert Evans, now is the time for the UK to really push forward in its development and commercialisation of new fuel cell technologies. He believes this technology is a massive opportunity for UK industry, but the fast-moving nature of such an immature sector poses risks.

'The UK has good technology in this area but needs to progress it to keep a competitive advantage,' said Evans. 'We have some companies demonstrating excellence in a particular field as well as a number of experts in current technologies. There is the worry, however, that the work they are doing could be superseded by newer low-carbon technologies over time.'

The critical stage for fuel cell technologies in the UK is not so much in the R&D but in successfully getting the technologies to market — something that in the fast-moving world of low-carbon technologies can be difficult for smaller companies, suggested Evans.

As well as championing fuel cell development, Cenex addresses a wide range of issues and technologies that can help reduce carbon dioxide emissions. By the centre's own definitions these fall across a number of categories. The first is the development of lightweight materials for vehicle weight reduction, which includes the usual suspects of composites, aluminium and reinforced plastics.

The group also looks at advancements in powertrain development for improved fuel efficiency including advanced engine technologies and electric and hybrid electric drive-trains. It also follows advances in mechanical transmissions and electrical components such as energy storage devices like batteries, flywheels and ultra-capacitors.

Finally, one of the most important areas is the use of alternative fuels that can help lower carbon dioxide emissions. Cenex is currently brokering a number of small-scale demonstration programmes with local authorities to test low-carbon technologies such as the use of biogas derived from animal waste and rubbish as fuel in council vans.

However, despite much of the good work undertaken by Cenex the UK still lags behind other countries in fuel cell and low-carbon technology development, particularly Japan, according to Evans. Japanese companies are leading the way in implementing low-carbon and fuel cell technologies into vehicles.

'Where we have three or four hybrids available here in the UK they have more than 40 in Japan,' said Evans. 'The difference is they have made the major commitment to hybrid technology and they are also making significant investments in fuel cell technology. In terms of implementation they are well ahead.'

'We don't want a situation where there are no UK components or systems in the global market of hybrid and low-carbon vehicles. The key to this is getting manufacturing costs down, and helping small UK firms find a market for their technology,' he added.

One of Cenex's member companies is UK fuel cell specialists Intelligent Energy, which develops proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells. The firm's vice-president of business development, Dennis Hayter, believes that it is this current lack of a low-carbon and fuel cell market that is holding the industry back in the UK. As a member of Cenex and so now also a part of the newly formed KTN, Intelligent Energy is an excellent example of how small, specialised UK technology companies can punch above their weight to win large contracts.

For the past few years the firm has been developing the world's first fuel cell-powered aircraft. Working with Boeing, it has designed an engine that is undergoing final testing and integration into a small two-seater Diamond Dynamo aircraft.

Its first test flight is due to take place towards the end of this year and Hayter sees this as a crucial step in the development of fuel cells for aerospace applications. The plane is fitted with a 20KW fuel cell that works in tandem with a lithium ion battery to generate 65KW to allow the plane to take off. Once at cruising altitude the aircraft switches to fuel cell only which provides enough power to enable it to manoeuvre. While it carries only enough hydrogen for the plane to stay in the air for around 90 minutes, this is sufficient to prove the concept.

Hayter believes that fuel cells could have a large role to play in the aircraft of the future. 'It will be a few years before there are many of these in light aircraft but, once you've got the proof of concept, fuel cells can then be introduced into the more-electric aircraft and the gradual transition to all-electric aircraft,' he said. 'When there are more electronics than hydraulics on-board the fuel cell could operate as a distributed generator.'

As well as being a major step forward in the fuel cell industry, Intelligent Energy's work with Boeing was also a major coup for a UK company in a market that is at a fledgling stage. Hayter agrees that the new KTN will have a beneficial effect on the state of the sector in the UK, helping small firms to foster relationships and build contacts within the industry.

An example of this is the way that Intelligent Energy is currently involved with MicroCab, a small UK company that specialises in developing materials and designing urban city centre low-carbon passenger vehicles. The firm is also working with Peugeot/Citroën on integrating fuel cells into battery electric vehicles.

'We are a fuel cell firm, not an automotive company so we need contact with the organisations that are a part of Cenex and the KTN to be able to support the fuel cell supply chain and help in codes and standards interoperability — both of which are very important parts of the process,' said Hayter.