At a time when energy resources are fast depleting, fuel cells raise new hopes, as research in this futuristic technology gathers momentum.

For over a century, predictions have been that fuel cell technology could be the future. The advance in material sciences at present could make it a reality in specialised applications in the coming decades.

Simply said, fuel cells convert the chemical energy of fuels directly into electricity. It could come in handy for power generation, transportation using hydrogen as fuel, and in powering electronic instruments like laptops and mobile phones replacing the lithium batteries.

Despite the tall talk and a few demonstrations, fuel cell technology is yet to translate into commercial reality. But the buzz is back with a delegation of academics and industry representatives from the United Kingdom landing in Chennai to chalk out joint research programmes in this futuristic technology.

Why Chennai? The city has the Centre for Fuel Cell Technology, an autonomous R&D centre of the Department of Science and Technology. IIT-Madras has a handful of groups researching on various aspects of fuel cell technology and there are many start-ups in the city using the technology.

“India is a partner of choice,” says Jason Green, Head, UK Energy Programme Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). In a select media briefing, Mr. Green said the EPSRC and the Department of Science and Technology (DST) would soon call for joint projects worth £ 6 million in next generation, environment-friendly fuel cell technologies.

Fuel cell technology has the potential. In June, a hydrogen-powered car was driven around for 250 miles during a demonstration. A fuel-powered motorcycle completed 320 miles before refuelling. Auto majors like Honda, Toyota and others are all working on cars powered by fuel cells, say experts.

Rowland Travis manages Rolls-Royce Fuel Cell Systems, a company pursuing the development of a megawatt scale of SOFC (Solid Oxide Fuel Cell) system for stationary power applications. “It is an inter-disciplinary subject involving cutting-edge technologies,” he says.

“Fuel cell technology has a huge market. In India, the diesel generators running the cellphone towers is a $ 2 billion market a year. Efficiency matters a lot. Increase in diesel price could push the cost factor higher,” says Murali Arikara, Executive Vice-President - Emerging Markets, Intelligent Energy, U.K. The company has set up an office in Bangalore and has a few installations to study the potential of this particular market.

Realising the business potential, a few alumni of IIT-M have started their own energy and fuel cell research powered companies in the city.

“We provide technology for defence organisations in the country for military applications,” says Mani Narayanasamy, Vice-President - R&D, Ingsman, an energy and fuel cell research company.

“India ranks at the top along with the U.S. and the U.K. in the number of publications on fuel cell technology,” says David Book, a senior research fellow, University of Birmingham. “Indian researchers are very strong in fundamentals and in cell catalysts,” says K.S. Dhathathreyan, Associate Director, Centre for Fuel Cell Technology, Chennai. “Hydrogen is the fuel for the future,” says P. Ragunathan, Head, Fuel Cell Section, Heavy Water Division Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), Trombay. His team is developing two units using the technology.

When it comes to commercialisation, cost is the key. A hydrogen-powered car could be ten times costlier than a car with an internal combustion engine. Scientists like Anthony Kucernak are precisely on it. A professor of Chemical Physics at Imperial College in London, Mr. Kucernak is a principal investigator in 11 EPSCRC projects. His Flexible Fuel Cell was rated one out of 13 proposals and Alkaline Polymer Electrolyte Fuel Cells rated one out of 55 proposals considered by EPSCRC.

“We are developing new diagnostic techniques to help optimise cost and lifetime of fuel cell systems. Basically, we are looking at a new geometry of fuel cells,” says Prof. Kucernak.

The ability to support new catalysts and supports which reduce the cost, improve the performance and increase the stability of catalysts systems is important. New fuel cell systems, for instance, based on alkaline conducting membranes are an important area in reducing the total cost of fuel cells and developing new markets, he says.