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Will the Consumer Electronics Fuel Cell Market Begin to Emerge?

Lisa Jerram — January 12, 2011

Sadly, I wasn’t at the CES 2011 (several of my Pike colleagues were) but it was fun to see fuel cells included in the blogosphere chatter over the show. Fuel cell companies have participated in this conference for years, as consumer electronics are an area where fuel cells could offer a major value proposition in portable charging and extended runtimes. One company that has been exhibiting for a few years is Singapore based Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies. Horizon has been mostly known for their fuel cell education kits, especially the cars, which have sold extremely well not only as educational tools but simply as toys (I’ve got one on my desk at home). But Horizon has been moving beyond this niche product to other applications that can use its small PEM fuel cells, such as chargers for small electronic devices, which it had on display at the show.

Asian companies like Horizon have dominated in this sector, due in part to the dominant position of Asian companies in the broader consumer electronics arena. Fuel cell companies with ties to the major electronics players have a significant competitive advantage, while it may be difficult for a new company outside the existing supply chain to enter into this market.

However, this year’s CES show highlighted another potential entryway into this market, veritably teeming with the tablet, e-book, and smartphone companies like Apple or Amazon. Reports are that tablets and smart phones were the big stories at CES 2011, so fuel cells would do well to jump into this booming market. A startup company called Fluid Computer Systems brought a prototype tablet PC designed to charge off a fuel cell power pack – in this case, one of Horizon’s. This topic is being explored in much more depth in my colleague Euan’s report on portable fuel cells, due out in a few weeks.

Finally, the presence of fuel cells at CES again highlights one of the challenges the fuel cell industry faces. Fuel cells can be used in such a wide array of devices and in so many configurations, it is hard to explain them to the wider business community and the public. It’s something that I noted in my earlier blog post on forklifts. That is, companies in the fuel cell industry that are most serious about creating a successful business, not just a good technology, seem to be focusing on selling the end product and not the fuel cell.
Don’t get me wrong, the fuel cell can still provide the technical novelty that can help develop some markets and certainly consumer electronics are one of those markets where that sells. But the products really should be the focus for potential investors, corporate partners, or consumers. Did anyone at CES associate Horizon’s fuel cell with the Honda Clarity they saw on Top Gear or the Bloom Box story on 60 Minutes? Probably not, and this is not a bad thing, as these are different products and very different markets.

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