Japanese Fuel Cell Expo

To catch up on the state of the fuel cell sector, I traveled to Tokyo last week to attend the grandly titled “2nd International Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Exposition“.

Below are a few observations from my visiting the Japan fuel cell expo:

1. There’s a lot of fuel cell activity in Japan right now — much more than in North America. This is a very sizable show by any standard, and positively immense for an alternative energy field. At over 400 exhibitors, it’s several times times bigger than the biggest comparable event in North America, the annual Fuel Cell Seminar — and even bigger than AWEA’s trade shows that I’ve visited in the past couple years during boom times for the U.S. wind energy sector. According to show promoters, over 20,000 attended last year’s event, and I saw nothing to suggest that such an estimate for this year was off-base. Crowds and crowds of people clogged the aisles. Press and TV cameras were frequently sighted. No doubt, this intense interest is motivated by Japan’s more dire energy supply situation and the high energy prices that result.

2. The fuel cell activity in Japan appears primarily to be by Japan, for Japan. Though it probably shouldn’t have surprised me, given the venue, the vast majority (95%?) of attendees and exhibitors were Japanese. Although the conference was held bilingually, almost all of the booths were exclusively in the Japanese language — and since I don’t read or speak Japanese, most of the information presented was wholly inscrutable to me. From strolling the venue in somewhat of a daze of perplexion, I am led to speculate that there must be a huge tech transfer opportunity for those who can translate Japanese into English and mine the best nuggets from this show to bring to the U.S. and elsewhere.

3. Lots of small firms are involved in the fuel cell industry. It was modestly surprising that many of the most well-known North American fuel cell players — such as Ballard, Plug Power, FuelCell Energy — did not have booths. Even more suprisingly, among Japanese firms, most of the displays were from smaller companies. Several of the most recognizable Japanese megamonoliths — such as Kyocera, Hitachi, Mitsushita, Sharp, Toshiba — had no trade floor presence. I see good news and bad news from this. The bad news is that the lack of participation of bigger firms undermines perceived commercial credibility, which is already weak in the fuel cell sector. The good news is that smaller players are much more likely to be acting with urgency, absent the stifling bureaucracy so prevalent among large corporations, leading to more rapid advancement in the field.

4. Most of the displays were ancillaries and components, as opposed to integrated fuel cell products. To me, this was a good sign. Although there were the obligatory “visionary” displays of the future hydrogen economy and of fuel cell stacks and applications thereof (e.g., scooters, cars, etc.), there were probably five times as many booths focused on more mundane specialized components and supporting goods — pumps, valves, sensors, materials, and so on — that are truly essential to creating a vibrant and viable market-based fuel cell industry. If more attention can be focused narrowly on solving the many small but crucial technical challenges, rather than “shooting for the moon” for grand breakthrough solutions, only then can fuel cells achieve their large potential upside.

As a result of attending the show, what am I thinking about the fuel cell sector? Well, at least in Japan, things are trending in the right direction.

No doubt, it remains prudent to be sanguine and sober about fuel cells. It will be tough for fuel cells to overtake conventional energy technologies in mass-market applications — internal combustion engines for vehicles, batteries for mobile devices, central powerplants for electricity generation – simply because the incumbent approaches work pretty darn well and are pretty darn affordable.

However, a growing number of more finely-defined niche segments are being identified for plausible fuel cell application, where current power approaches are in some way unsatisfactory. And, it does appear that many technical advancement needs in the fuel cell realm are transitioning past the fundamental science stage towards application engineering as a precursor to commercial products. In sum, tough-minded optimism is warranted for the fuel cell sector.

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