Fuel cells... who needs them?

The answer, of course, is we all do. With the rocketing price of oil, the war in the Middle East reminding us of the potential instability of oil supplies, and the damage wrought by fossils fuels on our planet, the real question should be: What's stopping us?

Unfortunately, fuel-cell development and implementation is not receiving the level of financial support it clearly deserves from governments and industry. Hydrogen fuel cells represent a clean technology with a clear and demonstrated potential. Sure, here in the U.K. and in Germany, the USA, and Japan, currently running projects are applying hydrogen fuel-cell technology. In reality, though, it's only a small beginning. The bottom line is that fuel cells must get a real push forward by industry investment or government taxation schemes, one that makes their use financially attractive.

So what's holding back the much-needed support? It's partly because fuel cells are perceived as "disruptive innovations." A recent report by the Economic and Social Research Council in the U.K. described them as radical burgeoning technologies that eventually obsolete existing dominant technologies. A good recent example is the digital camera and the way they've all but ousted traditional cameras and film. Often, disruptive technologies aren't that great at their outset, which is where industry fails to take the long-term view for a couple of reasons.

First, profits are unlikely to be immediate, so funding for the innovation can be hard to find. Second, companies relying on profits from existing technology are likely to fear and obstruct the new development. However, in this case, I strongly suspect that our lack of enthusiasm for fuel cells started more than a 100 years ago.

The first fuel-cell-related concept was presented in 1839 by British physicist William R. Grove. Sadly, nobody tried to make use of it, and by the 1900s the development of the internal combustion engine made further research into the technology unattractive.

Time we started using the word hindsight in conjunction with fuel cells.

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