Home Hydrogen and Fuel Cells UK Innovation in Fuel Cells and Hydrogen

UK Innovation in Fuel Cells and Hydrogen

 First published in Cleantech Infocus: UK Innovation in Fuel Cells and Hydrogen, in partnership with the Technology Strategy Board, October 2012

The Technology Strategy Board has a wide remit. It focuses on innovation in many fields ranging from biosciences to aerospace, and from high-value manufacturing to the creative industries. However, since its establishment in 2007 the organisation’s portfolio has included successfully investing in fuel cells and hydrogen through its Energy Programme. Crucial to the success of the initiatives highlighted in this article has been the way the Energy Programme has worked coherently with other relevant programmes in the investment portfolio, such as the Low Carbon Vehicles Innovation Platform and the Materials for Energy programme. This joined-up approach is now really showing results, with some of the world’s largest automotive and utility companies beginning to partner with SMEs in Technology Strategy Board projects to develop the specific energy technologies.

Profile: Intelligent Energy

These technologies play into several of the organisation’s priority areas – including energy, transport and sustainability. The earlier investments were part of research and development programmes in generic energy-related technologies, and built on previous work funded by the DTI, as it was then. However from 2009 onwards attention narrowed to focus on strategically important  technologies, including fuel cells and hydrogen. The first dedicated funding for these technologies was quickly followed by a fuel cell demonstrator programme funded by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and delivered by the Technology Strategy Board. Together, the Board and DECC have provided consistent innovation investment in this area over recent years.

Richard Kemp-Harper, the Technology Strategy Board’s Lead Technologist for Transport and Energy, points out the differences between its role and that of other organisations working in the cleantech arena.  As the UK’s innovation agency, providing grant funding and other forms of innovation support, the Technology Strategy Board helps co-ordinate investment, networking and collaboration around low carbon technologies. He says: “What we do is to work with business to understand future directions and opportunities, then work to apply the right tools – and not just funding – to stimulate innovation.”

The role of the Technology Strategy Board is not to deliver energy policy; rather it is to ensure UK business benefits from the opportunities that policies and demand for innovation bring, and to focus limited funds on the greatest opportunities.

These future opportunities often stem from major societal and global challenges, and the actions governments and regulators are taking to address them. This is what the Technology Strategy Board calls the ‘challenge-led’ approach to innovation.  The organisation is also intent on helping the UK to take advantage of opportunities arising from new, disruptive technologies.  

To ensure that it invests in the areas most likely to generate sustainable UK economic growth, the Technology Strategy Board applies four criteria:

• Is there a global market for the technology?
• Is there capability in the UK to roll out this technology?
• Is the timing right for this technology?
• Can the Technology Strategy Board make a difference?
Fuel cells and hydrogen projects have typically scored well over all four, and together with DECC the Technology Strategy Board has invested £40 million in R&D in these technologies over the last five years.  As this is ‘match funding’ for contributions by the companies undertaking the R&D, this suggests that investment in research and development of at least £80 million has been mobilised by the TSB’s leadership over this period.

The Technology Strategy Board’s investments cover specific innovation projects, not generic investments in companies or funding for market launches. However moving a technology closer to reality can be a major step towards making a company investor-ready. Smaller companies also report that having Technology Strategy Board funding – perhaps through a feasibility study programme – can be a strong endorsement when it comes to seeking private sector investment.

The Technology Strategy Board is also keen to point out that across its portfolio it does not back one technology to the exclusion of others. Its low carbon vehicles programme, for example, has invested in a wide range of projects with market potential, from increased internal combustion engine efficiency and lightweighting, to electric, hybrid and range-extended vehicles.

However fuel cells and systems generating alternative energy vectors such as hydrogen are clearly an important part of the future mix. Although the UK market is not as well established as in some other countries, there are innovative businesses here developing world-leading technologies. Solutions have been developed and successfully demonstrated. At the same time, the cost and disruptive nature of these technologies are major barriers to commercialisation, particularly in areas such as transport. The market cannot overcome these barriers on its own, and so the Technology Strategy Board aims to tackle them by stimulating innovation - focusing on collaboration, reducing cost, integrating systems and supporting scale-up to greater volumes.
Richard Kemp-Harper believes the coherent approach taken by the Technology Strategy Board has helped to accelerate the growth of the businesses involved in its fuel cell and hydrogen R&D projects.  The organisation has been a key partner for these companies, and the other collaborators involved have also been vital for their success. While the fuel cell and hydrogen industry may have been the victim of inflated expectations in some quarters, these stories amply demonstrate the UK’s ability to encourage the development of robust clean technology companies in a sector with great potential.

Removing barriers, reducing risk

Profile: ACAL EnergySince 2009 the strategic direction of the Technology Strategy Board’s hydrogen and fuel cells investments has been following a deliberate path, tackling the barriers to innovation - from developing technologies, to demonstrators, to whole systems integration, to reducing manufacturing cost, to storage technologies.

For example, in 2008 and 2009 the focus was on encouraging demonstrator projects, to close a significant gap in the innovation chain. The fuel cell taxi project (see Intelligent Energy profile) is an example from 2008 now bearing fruit. In 2009, the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Demonstration Programme went on to provide funding of more than £7 million from DECC and the Technology Strategy Board, helping collaborative projects fund the costs of demonstration work focusing on stationary power and transport.

Having demonstrated technologies in action, the challenge is to effectively integrate the different components and to design a whole system that can be used by customers in real situations - providing practical solutions in combination with applications such as low carbon vehicles. There is an opportunity for the UK to develop a coherent capability, to capture the value of global markets, and to present a vibrant industry that will encourage international partnerships and inward investment.

To demonstrate this, a Technology Strategy Board competition launched in January 2012, again co-funded by DECC, aimed to encourage UK businesses developing fuel cells and hydrogen systems to work with partners and use customer-focused design to overcome the system integration challenges. The aim was also to provide evidence to government and business of the case for further investment.

The result: five new projects, each a collaboration between a lead company and others. The projects are:
• Is there a global market for the technology?
• Is there capability in the UK to roll out this technology?
• Is the timing right for this technology?
• Can the Technology Strategy Board make a difference?
Fuel cells and hydrogen projects have typically scored well over all four, and together with DECC the Technology Strategy Board has invested £40 million in R&D in these technologies over the last five years.  As this is ‘match funding’ for contributions by the companies undertaking the R&D, this suggests that investment in research and development of at least £80 million has been mobilised by the TSB’s leadership over this period.

Profile: Johnson Matthey Fuel CellsThe Technology Strategy Board’s investments cover specific innovation projects, not generic investments in companies or funding for market launches. However moving a technology closer to reality can be a major step towards making a company investor-ready. Smaller companies also report that having Technology Strategy Board funding – perhaps through a feasibility study programme – can be a strong endorsement when it comes to seeking private sector investment.

The Technology Strategy Board is also keen to point out that across its portfolio it does not back one technology to the exclusion of others. Its low carbon vehicles programme, for example, has invested in a wide range of projects with market potential, from increased internal combustion engine efficiency and lightweighting, to electric, hybrid and range-extended vehicles.

However fuel cells and systems generating alternative energy vectors such as hydrogen are clearly an important part of the future mix. Although the UK market is not as well established as in some other countries, there are innovative businesses here developing world-leading technologies. Solutions have been developed and successfully demonstrated. At the same time, the cost and disruptive nature of these technologies are major barriers to commercialisation, particularly in areas such as transport. The market cannot overcome these barriers on its own, and so the Technology Strategy Board aims to tackle them by stimulating innovation - focusing on collaboration, reducing cost, integrating systems and supporting scale-up to greater volumes.
Richard Kemp-Harper believes the coherent approach taken by the Technology Strategy Board has helped to accelerate the growth of the businesses involved in its fuel cell and hydrogen R&D projects.  The organisation has been a key partner for these companies, and the other collaborators involved have also been vital for their success. While the fuel cell and hydrogen industry may have been the victim of inflated expectations in some quarters, these stories amply demonstrate the UK’s ability to encourage the development of robust clean technology companies in a sector with great potential.

Removing barriers, reducing risk

Since 2009 the strategic direction of the Technology Strategy Board’s hydrogen and fuel cells investments has been following a deliberate path, tackling the barriers to innovation - from developing technologies, to demonstrators, to whole systems integration, to reducing manufacturing cost, to storage technologies.

For example, in 2008 and 2009 the focus was on encouraging demonstrator projects, to close a significant gap in the innovation chain. The fuel cell taxi project (see Intelligent Energy profile) is an example from 2008 now bearing fruit. In 2009, the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Demonstration Programme went on to provide funding of more than £7 million from DECC and the Technology Strategy Board, helping collaborative projects fund the costs of demonstration work focusing on stationary power and transport.

Having demonstrated technologies in action, the challenge is to effectively integrate the different components and to design a whole system that can be used by customers in real situations - providing practical solutions in combination with applications such as low carbon vehicles. There is an opportunity for the UK to develop a coherent capability, to capture the value of global markets, and to present a vibrant industry that will encourage international partnerships and inward investment.

To demonstrate this, a Technology Strategy Board competition launched in January 2012, again co-funded by DECC, aimed to encourage UK businesses developing fuel cells and hydrogen systems to work with partners and use customer-focused design to overcome the system integration challenges. The aim was also to provide evidence to government and business of the case for further investment.

The result: five new projects, each a collaboration between a lead company and others. The projects are:

  • A project led by Air Products plc will create the UK’s first end-to-end, integrated, green hydrogen production, distribution and retailing system, centred around a publicly accessible, state-of-the-art 700 bar renewable H2 refuelling station network across London.
  • BOC Ltd will lead a project to deliver solar energy generated hydrogen for Swindon’s existing public access H2 refuelling station via an electrolyser, and its use in materials handling vehicles and light vans at Honda’s manufacturing plant.
  • On the Isle of Wight, a project led by ITM Power will integrate an electrolyser-based refueller with renewable energy, enabling zero-carbon hydrogen to be produced for use as a transport fuel for a range of vehicles.
  • Rutland Management Ltd, with project partners, will aim to demonstrate a viable solar-hydrogen energy system, with benefits shared by multiple end users on a business park in Surrey, through the 24/7 provision of green electricity and heat.
  • In Aberdeen, SSE plc is leading on the demonstration of a whole renewable hydrogen system, connecting a 1MWe electrolyser to the grid, in conjunction with a local wind farm, to explore the grid impacts and energy storage potential of hydrogen generation, and to use the hydrogen produced to power a fleet of fuel cell buses.

The projects also align very well with UKH2Mobility, the cross-industry and government initiative currently evaluating the potential roll-out scenarios for hydrogen for transport in the UK. 

Building a fuel cell and hydrogen supply chain

Profile: ITM PowerA key challenge for the fuel cells and hydrogen industry is the development of a supply chain, which will be essential for large   scale commercialisation.  Manufacturing and scale-up of new technologies often takes place at the point of invention and creates local skills and products capable of profiting from wider global markets. The Technology Strategy Board wants that place of invention to be the UK.

Building effective supply chains requires vision and close co-working between the companies, large or small, that will form the links. This is why the Technology Strategy Board sets such store by the collaborative research and development model, asking consortia of companies to bid together for projects.
As the most recent projects show, there is a nascent supply chain in the UK in fields including automotive and stationary fuel cells and materials handling - and evidence of commitment to building it further. The Technology Strategy Board is working towards this goal, supporting companies in identifying strategic partners and taking out costs.

The Catapult centres being set up by the Technology Strategy Board will also play a role in fuel cell and hydrogen innovation and supply chain development.  World-leading innovation and technology centres in specific fields, the Catapults will form a transformational resource in which businesses work with research to commercialise new products, technologies and services more rapidly.

The first Catapult, established last year, is in high-value manufacturing. It brings existing world-leading facilities together into one centre and focuses on many competences which are of particular value to the fuel cell and hydrogen sector, such as automation and assembly. Such capabilities will be vital for the sector as it develops.  There are key components needed for fuel cell stacks and also for the ‘balance of plant’ for which there are as yet no cost-effective solutions; a huge gap which offers opportunities to UK companies if they can develop the technology required. 

Academic collaboration

The Technology Strategy Board is business-led and business-focused, but academia is vital to the equation given the opportunity to pull ideas through from research towards commercialisation.  Collaborative research and development projects frequently involve one or more universities working closely with companies.  Connecting the innovation landscape is a key role for the Technology Strategy Board, and this involves maintaining and developing an excellent relationship with the research councils and the research base, for example by helping those companies which have challenges to form partnerships with universities which may have potential technology solutions.

In the fuel cells and hydrogen area, the Technology Strategy Board is to play an active role as an advisory board member of the Research Councils’ Energy Programme funded ‘SUPERGEN Hub’ for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells. The SUPERGEN initiative is a focus for academic research in these technologies; the Board’s involvement will help the Hub align the research it supports with business innovation.

Faster, higher, stronger

In 2012, the UK has been celebrating not only sporting success but also significant achievements in clean technology development. The Intelligent Energy fuel cell taxis, driving guests to the Olympic venues, provide just one very visible example.

The Technology Strategy Board is stimulating technology development, creating visibility of market opportunities, proving concepts, encouraging supply chain development and contributing to the accelerated growth of businesses in the sector.  Or, as the Olympic motto has it, encouraging “faster, higher, stronger” innovation – for the future of fuel cells and hydrogen in the UK and for economic growth.

 

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