Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Study on fuel cell patents

Thomson Scientific Ltd prepared a study of fuel cell patent documents obtained from Derwent World Patents Index. The search revealed 11,000 documents on fuel cells in the time 1999-2003 in a search over 40 patent issuing authorities.

Applications went from 870 in 1999 to about 4,000 in 2003. Matsushita and Mitsubishi were big players. Toshiba has been active in direct methanol fuel cells (DMFC).

In 2003, half of the major assignees were major car manufacturers.

Toward the end, the report delved into the area of carbon nanotubes as hydrogen storage vehicles. The report places the discovery as the late 1980's, although this might be questioned. Iijima's work at NEC came later, but work on filamentary carbon, such as by R. T. K. ("Terry") Baker goes back to the 1970's, and Boudouard carbon goes back to the 19th century.

In terms of geography, over 1999-2003, fuel cell patent applications are most likely to originate from Japan, with Germany next, followed by the EU.

In terms of 2003 alone, the US is number 2.

I could not help noting something in the conclusion. "Thirty years ago the need to develop fuel cell technologies as an alternative to plentiful coal and oil supplies simply did not exist."

One wonders where author Ed White was thirty years ago, circa 1974-1975. Obviously, not waiting in line for gasoline during the oil embargo shortages. In the 1970's there was a lot of research on batteries and fuel cells (recall Ford's work on sodium beta alumina, and review a 1970's edition of the textbook by John O'M. Bockris; Bockris was first to coin the very term "hydrogen economy" back in the 1970's: "Boiled down to its minimalist description, the 'Hydrogen Economy' means that hydrogen would be used to transport energy from renewables (at solar or nuclear sources) over large distances; and to store it (for supply to cities) in large amounts." ).

Also in the 1970's, Exxon worked on the Exxon Donor Solvent (EDS)process to convert coal into liquid fuels. Lots of companies were looking at oil shale in Colorado and elsewhere.

[A few remarks about energy density might be in order, but that can wait for another day.]

Some background from Gene Mallove (now deceased):

But just what is a fuel cell, which is said to be the corner-stone of the hydrogen economy? First, realize that fuel cells come in several different types, only a few of which have been touted for use in the proposed conventional 'hydrogen economy.' In purest form, one can think of a fuel cell as a reverse electrolysis cell. So instead of, for example, water being decomposed into hydrogen and oxygen (separately at two different electrodes) by the passage of electricity between the electrodes, in a fuel cell hydrogen may flow through and from an anode catalyst material (such as platinum), then through an intervening material substrate that allows the ionized hydrogen to move toward the cathode, where it is recombined with oxygen, producing water. The electron removed from the hydrogen at the anode then flows through the external power load of the fuel cell back to the cathode side, where it participates in the formation of the water by-product.

The basic fuel cell principle was actually discovered in 1839 in England by a research physicist friend of Michael Faraday, John Grove. But though the principle of the fuel cell has been known for a long time, there was apparently not a great technological need for electricity-producing fuel cells (called 'gas batteries' originally) for over a century after their discovery. Chemical storage batteries or primary cells worked just fine for most applications.

A two-page color advertising spread by General Motors in a recent New York Times (March 16, 2004, pp. C12-13) shows two little girls in a colorful plastic toy car tootling along a path through green grass with an expansive blue sky. The message written large in the heavens: "WHO'S DRIVING THE HYDROGEN ECONOMY?" More hype in the ad: "The hydrogen economy isn't a pipe dream. And it isn't the buzz du jour on the front page of the business section. The hydrogen economy is the endgame of a multi-faceted strategy GM set in motion years ago, with steps that are real, progressive, and well-underway ...We're making sure children today are in cleaner cars tomorrow. And in the driver's seat of the hydrogen economy."

So, what, if anything, is wrong with hydrogen fuel cells? First of all, as we have seen, they do not represent a new source of energy, but that is precisely how they are often billed in some publications that hype them. Jeremy Rifkin blurts out at one point in his book, crossing the line from insidious deception to outright falsehood: "For the first time in human history, we have within our grasp a ubiquitous form of energy, what proponents call the 'forever fuel.'"(p. 217) Hydrogen is not a 'ubiquitous form of energy' - it is merely a carrier of energy, once it is obtained at the cost of other energy input from some other source. Today, for example, the least expensive way to make hydrogen is by steam reformation of natural gas (methane). Electrolysis produces a more purified form of hydrogen, but this requires a source of electric power-solar, nuclear, chemical, etc.

Peter Hoffman notes: "Hydrogen is not an energy 'source,' a mistake still made fairly often by otherwise sophisticated, well-informed people. That is, it is not primary energy (like natural gas or crude oil), existing freely in nature. It is an energy carrier-a secondary form of energy that has to be manufactured (like electricity, which doesn't exist freely in usable form either)."

Dr. Joseph J. Romm writes: "commercially viable and environmentally beneficial hydrogen vehicles are in the post-2035 future." [long after patents from applications filed in 2005 will have expired].