A tipping point is the point of flex when something goes from one balanced state to another. As the name implies, it only occurs after a build-up of pressure in a system. In technology diffusion these points can be “natural” created by successful viral consumers memes or forced through a direct market intervention from some outside force, such as a new government regulation. In technology diffusion the difference between a tipping point and a learning curve is that learning curves tend to smoothed out curves which show annual change with tipping points creating single point step changes, or a perturbation in the system. While we see a lot of research into learning curves the hypothesis here is that new industries have to go through a number of step changes, tipping points, before learning curves can be usefully applied.
The fuel cell industry is still very small, especially when compared with other more traditional cleantech. It has a number of tipping points that still need to happen before it can reach a point of mass market commercialization.
As well as tipping points aimed at bringing cost down, such as moving from batch, and often manual, to continuous, machine manufacturing, and from bespoke to standardisation of components, the industry has also yet to create a marketing meme to move adoption out of the dangerous innovators sector. Dangerous in that none of the applications that the industry is targeting has yet to face the well documented chasm of commercialization. Each tipping point will have a critical effect on the industry, without which the probability of widespread adoption and the technology reaching its potential as a new general purpose technology (GPT) are severely limited.
So are there different tipping points for the different electrolytes and different applications? Yes and no. Sorry, no black and white answer there. For PEM fuel cells, which will see the broadest spread of market penetration, a small number of flexes in the system will affect a broad number of applications. For more “niche” electrolytes such as MCFC and PAFC there will be little conciliation of shared pain.
By analysing the current level of pressure in the technological and societal system we can project at what point some of the tipping points could occur or also at what point policy would be most effective. So we know, for example, that a certain key level of fuel cell stacks per annum requires a shift to continuous manufacturing. This drives down cost as it inevitably increases quality control in the system as well as a more favourable unit cost. Here the tipping point is the order level. What we see from this very short example is the start of a cascade effect in which one system is created in which the foundation of the pressure to move to the next is created. For PEM fuel cells this is still some way off but can be measured in terms of years, not decades. Costs still need to come down through standardisation before large enough orders would be placed to force the shift to continuous manufacturing. If at this point we were to apply learning curves to this system it could easily give off something of a false impression of the state of the system.
So if we agree that these tipping points are needed how do we ensure that the right forces are created to push the industry over the proverbial edge? Assuming that the centralised government policies that we see in Japan are not replicable in say Europe or North American we need to look to the free market to create them. And that is the challenge the industry is facing right now.