According to a new study, the fuel cell market is starting a steep increase – from sales of about $218 million in 2000 to an estimated $2.4 billion by 2005, an average annual growth rate of almost 62 per cent.

The analysis, from the Business Communications Company, contends that fuel cells are one of the most promising technologies for meeting US energy needs well into this century. Fuel cell plants can be built in a wide range of sizes, from 200 kW units suitable for powering commercial buildings to 100 MW that can add baseload capacity to utilities. Commercialisation of the technology in the US is focused on large-scale areas such as central power and industrial, commercial and residential generators. But, says the report, virtually anywhere electricity is a factor presents opportunities, from power-intensive applications like desalination plant, to emergency back-ups and portable computers.

Fuel cell advocates are bold enough to proclaim the technology as one of the most momentous leaps forward of the era, though most applications are yet to commercially materialise. But developments in materials are making affordable, renewable, non-polluting power a realistic option, and the fuel cell potential seems clearly large.

Fuel cell technology is still limited to a range of materials, methods and manufacturers, the report continues, but with both the technology and the market in nascent states, increased demand and complexities are expected as more applications become financially feasible. Rapid technological innovations, with possibly major market-changing effects particularly in price-per-watt and size, still occur, with commercialisation of most of the fuel cell technologies falling in place;

•Popularity in the vehicle market has seen the proton exchange membrane (PEM) type of cell become the dominant version in the market. Sales of $104 million this year are predicted to be $1.6 billion by 2005.

•Molten carbonate, the fuel cell technology most suitable for large-scale applications, has been limited to fewer demonstration projects, but projected 2000 sales of $25 million increase to $450 million by 2005

•Once the largest selling version, solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) sales declined sharply in 2000, to $54 million from $166 million in 1999, largely because the majority of 1999 sales were demonstration projects. SOFC configurations are solid state, operating over a wide range of temperatures, and annual sales are expected to pick up and rise at around 38 per cent annually to $260 million over the next five years.

•The most commercially mature fuel cell technology, phosphoric acid, has a lower operating temperature, which doesn’t allow it to convert methane as other technologies do, this limitation will keep the 2000 sales of about $20 million to some $36 million in 2005.

•Alkaline fuel cell technology, first used in the space programme, but severely limited by cost, has had a boost in interest and sales recently with a drop in the price per-kilowatt. Still limited in application, alkaline fuel cell sales of $15 million in 2000 are estimated to grow to about $30 million in 2005, about

15 per cent annually.