UK and Korea sign agreement today to advance fuel cell technology


Fuel cell research

An agreement that signifies a new phase of cooperation between the UK and Korea in hydrogen and fuel cell technology was signed today.

A fuel cell is a type of technology that is more efficient at generating electrical energy from fuel sources such as natural gas and hydrogen. This makes the technology more economical and beneficial to use, especially in a climate where energy resources are becoming harder to recover, making energy generation more expensive.

"As a low carbon and efficient energy source, hydrogen and fuel cells have an important role to play in a low carbon economy."

– Professor Nigel Brandon

Director of the Energy Futures Lab and the Fuel Cell SUPERGEN Hub

Professor James Stirling, Provost of Imperial College London, and Professor Taihyun Chang, Provost and Executive Vice President of Pohang University of Science and Technology in Korea, signed a Memorandum of Understanding that paves the way for further engagement in hydrogen and fuel cell technology research between the two countries.

The Energy Futures Lab (EFL), the College’s focal point for multidisciplinary energy research, is leading a nationwide hub for hydrogen and fuel cell technology research called the Hydrogen and Fuel Cell SUPERGEN Hub (H2FC SUPERGEN), funded by the Research Councils’ energy programme. Colin Smith caught up with Professor Nigel Brandon, Director of the EFL and H2FC SUPERGEN, to discuss the potential impact of this agreement and what it means for the UK.

What are fuel cells and how do they work?

Fuel cells combine a fuel such as natural gas or hydrogen and an oxidant, usually air, to produce electricity by a highly efficient electrochemical process. When used to power a device called a combined heat and power unit, fuel cells can generate both heat and energy locally for homes and larger buildings. Using hydrogen as the fuel source makes fuel cells even more sustainable because carbon dioxide is not generated as a by-product. However, it is important to add that overall carbon emissions depend on how the hydrogen is produced. 

Where is the UK at the moment in terms of fuel cell development?

There are a number of fields where fuel cell technology is being used and there are some outstanding companies involved in fuel cell development such as Ceres Power, which is an Imperial spinout company.

The UK is considering storing a growing proportion of its renewable energy through hydrogen generation. Some of the newer London buses are using hydrogen fuel cells and there is a real prospect that hydrogen fuel cell cars will soon become commercially viable in the UK.

This country also has a world-class science base in this area and the research community is integrated through H2FC SUPERGEN.

Why is Korea currently a world leader in hydrogen fuel cell development?

Korea is investing heavily in a range of energy technologies including fuel cells, reflecting the country’s relative lack of natural resources.  As fuel cells are the most efficient form of electricity generation for a range of fuels, including natural gas and hydrogen, this is of significant interest for Korean industry to develop for both its home and international markets.

How is Korea currently using this technology and how do they envisage using it in the future?

Korea is developing fuel cells for a wide range of applications, both for power generation and for transport as hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles.  By 2014 the Seoul government will have built 29 hydrogen and fuel cell plants.

How will this agreement help guide the development of fuel cell production in both countries?

The UK and South Korea have a track record of research and industry partnership in the fields of hydrogen and fuel cells.  For example, Ceres Power has partnered with K D Navien of Korea to develop fuel cell boilers, and Rolls-Royce Fuel Cells Systems, which has the Korean manufacturer LG as its major shareholder, is developing fuel cell power generators. These can generate electricity locally, which means less overhead power lines, reducing the visible impact of energy generation, and reduced losses of electrical energy, making it more efficient.

With the continued commercial development of these technologies, the MOU presents an exciting opportunity to build on these projects and establish even stronger ties between both nations.

What are the challenges in developing fuel cells?

The key challenges facing the long-term commercial success of these technologies will be to continue to improve their performance. Electrodes, for instance, can degrade over time and mechanical stresses can build up that may lead to failure of components.  If manufacturers can prevent this from happening then costs can be driven down.  Research to prevent this requires a strong collaboration between the research communities and industries in both countries and this will be an important focus of the partnership.

Can you paint a picture of how hydrogen fuel cell technology could be used in the future?

As a low carbon and efficient energy source, hydrogen and fuel cells have an important role to play in a low carbon economy.

Hydrogen fuel cells are one of a very small number of ways in which we might be able to de-carbonise the transport sector. Automotive companies have made great advances in this field in recent years, with the commercial launch of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles promised in countries such as Germany within the next two to three years. The UK may also follow this route as the Government is currently considering its options through the UKH2Mobility programme.

Hydrogen is ideal for storing large amounts of energy from intermittent sources of power such as wind farms. Finding a way to store energy more effectively from renewable sources is a current challenge for researchers. Reversible fuel cells currently under development could, for example, produce hydrogen as a way to store energy and when needed as power, the fuel cell can convert the hydrogen back into electricity.

Fuel cells could also be used in our homes to power boilers, producing heat and power more efficiently and flexibly than current generators, working on today’s fuels like natural gas as well as more sustainable fuels such as bio-gas or hydrogen.


Colin Smith

Colin Smith
Communications and Public Affairs

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