With shifting consumer preferences and positive government outlook for sustainable energy sources, global fuel cell market size is expected to witness stellar growth in the upcoming years. Fuel cell technology has evolved rapidly over the past two decades owing to its efficiency in transforming hydrogen’s chemical energy into electrical energy.
The commercialization of fuel cells has gained more traction given the volatile oil prices and rising environmental concerns. It has already been known that conventional fossil fuels will not last over a hundred years amidst surging worldwide demand. Although natural gas, tar, and coal sands are expected to last over two hundred years, their conversion currently is neither pollution-free nor efficient.
Supplying hydrogen to end-users, amidst these concerns, has emerged to be a lucrative business opportunity around the world. Although hydrogen demand has tripled since 1975, it is mostly supplied from fossil fuels.
According to the IEA, around 2% of coal and 5% of natural gas produced globally is used for manufacturing hydrogen. This results in the production of approximately 830 million tonnes of CO2 per year, which is equal to the carbon emissions of Indonesia and the United Kingdom combined.
This, coupled with growing cognizance regarding environmental conservation has compelled public and private organizations to focus on green hydrogen products, further favoring fuel cell market dynamics. In May 2022 for instance, the United States Department of Energy announced a USD 24.9 million in funding for around six R&D projects to support the development of clean hydrogen for electricity generation.
Advancements in technologies have also been a critical factor responsible for fuel cell market expansion in recent times. In this context, WATT Fuel Cell managed to achieve a technological breakthrough in fuel cell efficiency by using a CPOX (Catalytic Partial Oxidation) fuel processing technology along with its AMP (additive manufacturing process).
1) Warehouse logistics
Fuel cells have proven to be both productive and competitive technology for material handling purposes. They can help in reducing operational cost and improve efficiency while also allowing companies to comply with strict environmental regulations.
Fuel cells are found to provide longer run times than battery-based forklifts. Even refueling takes less than three minutes and can be done directly by the operator, thus removing the need for a battery changing space. This technology can also operate without losing performance in harsh environmental conditions, such as freezers and refrigerated storages or in hot spaces.
Various retailers are opting for fuel cell technology to ensure efficiency and meet zero emission targets by 2040. Plug Power, for instance, signed a supply agreement with Walmart to deliver around 20 tons of liquid hydrogen per day to power material handling lift trucks across the retailer’s distribution centers in the U.S. In consequence, it is expected that fuel cell industry from warehouse logistics is likely to generate significant returns in the upcoming years.
2) Automotive & aerospace
The early experimenters and adopters of fuel cells were the automotive companies. While fuel cells have long been used in passenger vehicles, some companies and authorities are testing the technology in buses, trains, and airplanes.
Numerous automotive behemoths are also teaming up with major city authorities in London, Beijing, Vancouver, and Chicago to test hydrogen-powered buses. Citing an instance, Toyota Motor Europe, Air Liquide, and CaetanoBus have signed an agreement to explore the development of hydrogen-based mobility solutions.
Meanwhile, fuel cell trains have now started running in Germany and are expected to arrive soon in the U.S., France, South Korea, India, Japan, the United Kingdom, and France. In May 2022, the German industrial giant Siemens recently unveiled its first hydrogen-powered train that is co-developed with a rail operator Deutsche Bahn and is likely to be in service in Europe by the year 2024.
For planes, several experimental projects, such as the Pathfinder and Helios prototypes, are exploring the use of fuel cells in aerospace. These long-range and remote vehicles employ a hybrid system with fuel cells that are refueled by solar electrical power, further ensuring continuous day and night operations.
The takeaway is that automotive & aerospace applications have always offered lucrative revenue-generating opportunities for fuel cell industry participants and are expected to grow immensely in the approaching years on account of the global energy transition.
3) Boats and submarines
The military were one of the first adopters of fuel cells for marine purposes, with stealth submarines such as the German Type 212 that uses hydrogen fuel cell as an alternative to nuclear power for silent cruising, long range, and low exhaust heat.
Eventually, fuel cells have found their way into various commercial marine applications. Few boats including the Energy Observer use an onboard solar panel and wind turbines to produce hydrogen for a fuel cell system. Even India’s Ministry of Ports, Shipping, and Waterways recently announced plans of developing hydrogen fueled electric vessels, a move that reflects country’s push toward greener shipping.
Fuel cell market size from boats & submarines applications is thus, expected to witness a strong compound annual growth rate in the upcoming years.
4) Backup power generation
Stationary fuel cells can be used for uninterruptible power supply at a local level, where continuous uptime is crucial in power generation. Data centers and hospitals are increasingly looking to integrate hydrogen fuel cells to ensure continuous power supply.
For instance, Microsoft made it to the headlines in August 2020 after successful testing of its new hydrogen backup generators that could run one data center’s server on hydrogen for two days consistently. Such developments and technological breakthroughs are likely to add significant traction to the stationary fuel cell market growth in the ensuing years.
In a nutshell, fuel cell industry landscape has witnessed revolutionary developments in the recent past. In the upcoming decade, the increasing demand for fuel cells is likely to define the worldwide sustainable energy transition.