In the 2005-2006 timeframe, direct methanol fuel cells (DMFCs) were the next big thing. Not just for the military, for portable power, recharging power, and even on-board plug-in systems in armored vehicles, but also very much for consumer electronics. At the time, many in the industry expected to see an integrated fuel cell in every laptop and mobile phone just around the corner. On the weight of expectation and some interesting lab results, a number of companies had stellar, at least by the fuel cell industry standard, VC investments and initial public offerings.
That was 2005 / 2006. Now, 6 years later, the industry is down to two companies with commercial product and only five others currently anywhere near market with a product. The DMFC sector has always been buoyed up by SFC Energy, a poster child not just for DMFCs but for the entire fuel cell industry. But beyond this innovative company, there is very little now left.
Taking a quick run though the remaining seven companies developing DMFC products:
- Fujikura (Japan): Was aiming at a 2012 commercial rollout. Nothing so far.
- IRD: Working across a number of electrolytes but has two DMFC products which are in theory commercial.
- Neah Power: In its 2012 annual report, Neah stated “Investment funds received have not been sufficient to continue to support certain operating activities, which led to postponement in the deployment of our business strategy and the scaling back of research and development activities. … Without additional funding, our cash is estimated to support our operations into March 2012.” Of course, if Neah Power comes forward with a large order, the funding situation could change quickly.
- Oorja Protonics: Provides shipping systems to the industrial vehicle sector, primarily forklifts.
- Panasonic – was aiming to field test its DMFC system in 2012. With the re-unveiling of the unit in June this could happen on time.
- SFC Energy: Shifting to higher margin markets alongside it foundation markets in the leisure sector.
- Toyobo: In R&D mode, developing systems for portable power generation.
Other companies have been mothballed, their products have sent back to the lab, or they are currently sidelined.
So why is SFC Energy so successful while others have taken such a beating? If you ever get a chance to hear SFC Energy’s charismatic CEO, Dr. Peter Podesser, speak, take it. He will tell you that company does not sell fuel cells, it sells solutions.
So could DMFCs make a comeback? Yes. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with DMFC technology and there’s a lot right with it. But the assumptions underpinning the expectations of 6 years ago were wrong. The military will not shift its technology readiness levels to match what a technology can do. Personal electronics power demand is moving faster than increases in power densities in DMFCs, and the stack architecture of the DMFC is still fiendishly complicated to integrate. The difference now, though, is that they are being targeted at markets where there’s a need for the characteristics that they have, rather than the ones the developers would like them to have. The remote power market is burgeoning, with remote telemetry a hot market, posting double digit growth rates in terms of DMFC fuel cell deployment. The leisure sector is bouncing back, and the military and first responders are cautiously dipping their toes in small batch deployments of proven systems.
And then there’s the Apple factor – the patents that Apple filed for integrated fuel cells in December look suspiciously like a DMFC system.