CASE STUDY Johnson Matthey Fuel Cells:
Slowdown in the downturn
Fuel cells, which use hydrogen to create electricity with the help of electro-catalysts, were first demonstrated in the 1830s. But it was only in the 1960s that a practical application was found: the provision of electricity and water for manned spacecraft. Today, the potential market for fuel cells is huge, with applications for vehicles, boats, bicycles, heating and cooling of buildings, and electronics products.
The economic downturn has slowed some product-commercialisation, although not so much in the car market, which operates on a longer and often more thoroughly planned, development timescales. However, the downturn has hurt Johnson Matthey Fuel Cells, a manufacturer and supplier of fuel cell components. Director, Jonathan Frost, agrees that the move to market has been held back, with most companies in the sector delaying plans: “While our large customers just slow their development, it has been very tough for our start-up customers, as they only have so much cash. Fortunately, not many went bust.” The company has been able to grow owing to sustained investment in R&D and by winning business from new customers.
JMFC, a subsidiary of the Johnson Matthey Group, has around 150 employees. It spends a high proportion of its revenue on R&D, much of which is carried out at its own facility in Swindon, with some work being contracted to Johnson Matthey’s research centre near Reading.
Smaller, cheaper, faster
The company’s R&D efforts are focused on making its components smaller, cheaper and more efficient, which should drive the acceptance of fuel cell technology in more cost-conscious countries, such as China and India, as well as in richer economies.
It receives R&D grants of around £1m a year and is currently involved in three major funded programmes with other companies: a project funded by the US Department of Energy to build a new, low-cost MEA; a programme funded by the Technology Strategy Board to develop new designs, materials and production processes for MEA use in vehicles; and the “Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies for Road Transport” project funded by the EU.
Although the company is small, it holds its own against heftier competitors because of its continuity of purpose and consistent year-on-year R&D investment. “This has made us the world’s leading company in this area”, says Dr Frost. “We train and retain our own staff and so are our own skills-generator, which enables us to compete against big companies such as Dupont and 3M.”
“It’s an exciting time, certainly, because, broadly speaking, fuel cells are better than batteries, which can’t hold so much energy. They are better than internal combustion engines because they are quiet and efficient and they don’t have a great environmental impact…. By 2018-20 they will be as common as hybrids are now.” However, he adds, “the real thing that drives commercialisation is having a market that wants to buy what you’ve made and here the UK is very conservative.“