Fuel-cell technology continues to mature at a promising rate, though full-scale commercial fruition of the hydrogen-based alternative energy may still remain years away.

Though scientists discovered the basics of fuel-cell generation more than 150 years ago, the technology never grew to compete with fossil-fuel power. However, in this era of diminishing fossil fuels and growing power demands, fuel cells may finally soon find their day in the sun. The technology is particularly ripe for home-power generation.

So far, successful fuel-cell generators have been installed in just a handful of places, including large sites in New York City and upstate Utica, N.Y. But momentum is building for mass-commercialization. The fuel-cell industry formed its own trade organization, the U.S. Fuel Cell Council, in late 1998.

Meanwhile, a number of fuel cell companies have been making strong advances in both technical development and commercialization.

“The fuel cell industry's progress has been exceptional, and we are seeing an increasing amount of serious interest from various industries,” said Atakan Ozbek, vice president of energy research at Allied Business Intelligence Inc., Oyster Bay, N.Y. and author of a new fuel-cell study. “We do not know whether the progress in the key technological parameters, such as energy density increases…and comparable weight decreases, will keep the same momentum as we have seen in recent years. However, there is still a lot to accomplish in order to achieve commercialization,” Ozbek said.

Many manufacturers continue to bank on fuel-cell technology, and new fuel-cell manufacturers spring up every day. In October, with an eye on the expected $10 billion market by 2010, the DuPont Company decided to enter the promising fuel cell industry — as a material and component supplier. The newly formed DuPont Fuel Cells will focus on proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells. Initially, DuPont will supply its DuPont Nafion perfluorinated ion-exchange-resin membranes and other engineering polymers to fuel cell system developers. Eventually the company would like to supply other fuel-cell stack components such as membrane electrode assemblies and conductive plates. The company believes 50% of PEM fuel cell stacks could be made from DuPont-supplied materials and parts.

In early November, Lisa Callahan, senior analyst covering energy technology with Think Equity Partners of Minneapolis, Minn., rated the company FuelCell Energy a stock buy with a $22 price target based on a discounted cash flow analysis.

FuelCell Energy is a leading developer of molten carbonate fuel cell (MCFCs) systems that target the larger-scale distributed generation market. The company has developed a patented fuel cell called the Direct FuelCell (DFC) that generates electricity from a hydrocarbon fuel such as natural gas, propane or diesel.

“We believe that from an operational standpoint, FuelCell Energy has all of the processes in place for large-scale commercialization,” Callahan said.

In a quest for greater efficiency, scientists have designed fuel cells of various shapes, sizes and configurations. Different fuel cells have different strengths and weaknesses. The electrolyte is the key to the technology. Today, the main electrolyte types are alkali, molten carbonate, phosphoric acid, proton exchange membrane (PEM) and solid oxide. The first three are liquid electrolytes; the last two are solids. Apparently, no technology is yet inexpensive enough for mass manufacture to seriously compete with traditional fossil fuel, hydroelectric or nuclear power.

For more information about the U.S. Fuel Cell Council and its member manufacturers and association, visit www.usfcc.com.