Bringing fuel cells to reality and reality to fuel cells : A systems perspective on the use of fuel cells

Abstract: With growing awareness of global warming and fear of political instability caused by oil depletion, the need for a society with a sustainable energy system has been brought to the fore. A promising technology often mentioned as a key component in such a system is the fuel cell technology, i.e. the energy conversion technology in focus in this thesis. The hopes and expectations on fuel cells are high and sometimes unrealistically positive. However, as an emerging technology, much remains to be proven and the proper use of the technology in terms of suitable applications, integration with society and extent of use is still under debate. This thesis is a contribution to the debate, presenting results from two fuel cell demonstration projects, looking into the introduction of fuel cells on the market, discussing the prospects and concerns for the near-term future and commenting on the potential use in a future sustainable energy system. Bringing fuel cells to reality implies finding near-term niche applications and markets where fuel cell systems may be competitive. In a sense fuel cells are already a reality as they have been demonstrated in various applications world-wide. However, in many of the envisioned applications fuel cells are far from being competitive and sometimes also the environmental benefit of using fuel cells in a given application may be questioned. Bringing reality to fuel cells implies emphasising the need for realistic expectations and pointing out that the first markets have to be based on the currently available technology and not the visions of what fuel cells could be in the future. The results from the demonstration projects show that further development and research on especially the durability for fuel cell systems is crucial and a general recommendation is to design the systems for high reliability and durability rather than striving towards higher energy efficiencies. When reliability and durability are achieved fuel cell systems may be introduced in niche markets where the added values presented by the technology compensate for the initial high cost.