Fuel cell technology

The study of devices which generate electricity directly through the oxidation of fuel. This research area includes materials, fabrication, fuel development and testing for these devices, plus studies in modelling and degradation and any related socio-economic and environmental issues.

Fuel Cell Technology is not currently a high priority for government or industry and has a comparatively lower impact than other technologies on the UK's ability to reach its ambitious 2050 greenhouse gas reduction targets. (Evidence source 1) Research focusing specifically on the development of fuel cells as devices will not therefore be a priority for this Delivery Plan and the research area will be reduced as a proportion of the EPSRC portfolio.

We will, however, support many significant research challenges which fall within related research areas and Themes (e.g. fundamental materials improvements through Materials for Energy Applications or Electrochemical Sciences, (Evidence source 2) or improvements to production and quality control within Manufacturing the Future). These being key to future advances and potential of the fuel cell as a device.

Within the Fuel Cell Technology research area:

  • We would encourage projects linking to and supporting these other areas (e.g. modelling and analysis for scaling-up manufacturing and ensuring quality control; or research into fuel cells' degradation and operating characteristics to help commercialisation and use of the technology) (Evidence source 3)
  • We encourage applications at the interfaces of Fuel Cell Technology, Hydrogen and Alternate Energy Vectors, Materials for Energy Applications, Electrochemical Sciences, and Energy Storage, taking advantage of the shared challenges and capacity in this research area.

We will give consideration to fuel cells' role in future models of domestic heat and power, transport/freight and hydrogen-based economies, (Evidence source 4,5,6,7) and to the research demands posed by these evolving models. Fuel cell research will also feed directly into policy discussion on future energy scenarios. Specific research challenges will be determined by the areas where fuel cells are shown to be commercially viable.

If fuel cells are to be a viable and widely-used technology, sustainability of production, recycling and disposal must be considered. Alternatives to precious metal catalysts are to be sought at the materials level. (Evidence source 8,9)

As fuel cells may be nearing a point of commercial viability, (Evidence source 9) it will be sensible to maintain a population and pipeline of trained specialists in this area. By the end of the Delivery Plan period, we aim to have maintained core capability to ensure that we are ready for any commercial progress that may occur and to have encouraged researchers to consider related research areas to take forward innovations in materials, production and quality control.

Highlights:

The UK is seen to have a strong fuel cell research community with good links to industry, through the Supergen Centre and the Fuel Cells and their Fuels Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT). (Evidence source 10) Many models show that fuel cells could have an important part to play in a long-term zero-carbon or carbon-negative energy strategy. However, their efficacy in the short term depends on the development and establishment of a widely available low-carbon or carbon-neutral fuel network, both for transport and domestic applications. These networks are certainly not as close to realisation as low-carbon or carbon-neutral electricity networks, which most models see as playing a more immediate and major role in reducing UK carbon dependence. (Evidence source 11)

Until fuel cells become more viable, the emphasis should be on developing new materials, improving manufacturing and identifying valid routes of commercialisation and scale-up, in an attempt to drive the technology as it stands towards commercial uptake while preparing the fundamental materials for the next generation of fuel cells.

Fuel Cell Technology belongs to a group of research areas which share a pool of electrochemical researchers (e.g. Energy Storage, Hydrogen and Alternate Energy Vectors, Materials for Energy Applications, and Electrochemical Sciences). Many researchers in one area will have interests in some of the others, and will be able to move from one to another relatively easily. (Evidence source 12)

This research area can have a relatively immediate impact on the following Ambitions within the Resilient and Productive Nation Outcomes:

R5: Build new tools to adapt to and mitigate climate change

While fuel cells are unlikely to compete with battery electric vehicles in the short term for domestic vehicles, they could reduce carbon emissions from vehicles which have to cover greater range or carry heavier weights than battery electric vehicles allow.

P2: Ensure affordable solutions for national needs

Fuel cells have the potential to use sustainable fuels efficiently to power automotive technologies and potentially to contribute to domestic heat and power.

P1: Introduce the next generation of innovative and disruptive technologies

Fuel cells have the potential to replace the internal combustion engine for automotive applications and to allow generation of both heat and electricity from chemical fuels (e.g. hydrogen, methane) at a domestic level.

R4: Manage resources efficiently and sustainably

Should the UK commit to a hydrogen (or other chemical energy vector) economy, fuel cells will permit that vector to be readily and efficiently turned into heat and electricity for domestic and automotive applications.

  1. HM Government, 2050 Pathways Analysis (PDF), (2010).
  2. CRM_Innonet, Final Roadmap Report (PDF), (2015).
  3. CS3, Efficient Utilization of Elements (PDF), (2013).
  4. Government Office for Science, Technology and Innovation Futures: UK Growth Opportunities for the 2020s (PDF), (2012).
  5. HM Government (Automotive Council UK), Driving Success: A Strategy for Growth and Sustainability in the UK Automotive Sector (PDF), (2013).
  6. Low Carbon Innovation Coordination Group (LCICG), Hydrogen for Transport Summary Report (PDF), (2014).
  7. Research Councils UK (RCUK) Energy Programme, Energy in the Home and Workplace (PDF), (2013).
  8. Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), Chemical Engineering Matters, (2016).
  9. Committee on Climate Change, The Fifth Carbon Budget, (2015).
  10. European Science Foundation, Materials for Key Enabling Technologies (PDF), (2011).
  11. International Energy Agency (IEA), Technology Roadmap Hydrogen and Fuel Cells (PDF), (2015).
  12. Supergen reviews, event attendance and conversations with relevant bodies.

Other sources:

Research area connections

This diagram shows the top 10 connections between Research Areas within the EPSRC research portfolio. The depth of the segment relates to value of grants and the width of the segment relates to the number of grants shared by those two Research Areas. Please click to see the related Research Area rationale.

Reduce

We aim to reduce this area as a proportion of the EPSRC portfolio.

Visualising our Portfolio (VoP)
Visualising our portfolio (VoP) is a tool for users to visually interact with the EPSRC portfolio and data relationships.

EPSRC support by research area in Fuel cell technology (GoW)
Search EPSRC's research and training grants.

Contact Details

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Name: Dr Katharine Dunn
Job title: Senior Portfolio Manager
Department: Energy
Organisation: Engineering Physical Sciences Research Council
Telephone: 01793 444297