Horizon Fuel Cells – Reviving the Hydrogen Dream

November 28, 2011 by  
Filed under Design and Tech

By Cheng Zhi Wei

Fuel cells cannot be called the next big thing. They have been around for a long time and was part of the hype around the possibility of using hydrogen to power everything from cars to phones. Fuel cells work by oxidizing hydrogen and emitting only water as a by-product with zero carbon emissions. However, when faced with the many challenges of large-scale hydrogen production and use, many researchers and businesses failed to overcome them to achieve commercialization and the focus has since shifted to electric vehicles and improving conventional battery technology. What used to be seen as an integral part of our sustainability goals became nothing more than a failed technology, destined to never realize its game-changing potential. One company, Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies, saw the potential and was determined to overcome the challenges.

However, with the general consensus being that hydrogen fuel cells were never going to be commercialized, governments and private investors were unlikely to invest in it. The biggest challenge was developing a market for fuel cells. Without a market, there would be no production. Without production, there would be no economies of scale to lower the cost, no profits to plough back into developing the technology. To overcome this barrier, Horizon’s breakthrough was a simple one – going back to basics. Given the obvious lack of markets for large fuel cell applications, they started with a simple one – a fuel cell-powered toy car to be used for educational purposes. To make the educational kit complete, they developed a mini-hydrogen generator that runs on electricity.

With this one small, niche product, they were able to get production going. After gaining some economies of scale, they were able to take lessons they learnt from developing the toy car and applied it to increasing the scale of their entire product line. It has been several years since they introduced the educational kit and Horizon has since moved beyond the classroom. They have developed entry-level fuel cells that are only slightly heavier than conventional batteries but boast far higher capacities as well as top-end fuel cells that are lighter as well. Currently, for the consumer market, they have portable battery chargers and small-scale hydrogen generators that can be used in homes. Outside of the consumer markets, their fuel cells are being used to develop hydrogen-powered cars and have even found application in the military – powering Unmanned Air Vehicles. They have a customer base that spans the globe and are constantly looking into developing applications for their fuel cells.

There are many lessons that can be taken away from Horizon’s example. One such lesson is going back to basics and starting small. At the peak of the hype surrounding hydrogen fuel cells, the biggest problems were storage and safety. Many companies and researchers were aiming to launch large fuel cell applications like cars. Without scaling up from small products and capacities, they faced a challenging learning curve with no possibility of revenue until the final product was completed. In contrast, Horizon started with small applications and worked their way up. As a result, they faced a much gentler learning curve – applying lessons learnt from developing and implementing small-scale products for larger applications. For example, the hydrogen generator they are currently selling was developed from the one that was sold with the educational kits. The only difference is the capacity of the generator and hydrogen containers.

Another benefit of starting small is that it has help to build confidence in their technology and products. Besides allowing people a firsthand opportunity to use a hydrogen fuel cell, it also gives Horizon a platform to educate and inform the general public about fuel cells. They are doing so by participating in Destination Zero Carbon. Destination Zero Carbon is a clean energy education program and one of its programs is a hydrogen fuel cell car race. School children are to design and develop a hydrogen fuel cell-powered car and compete in races with other schools.The program aims to prepare the young for a sustainable future by educating them from the start.

Having first made a name for themselves in the educational field with their original kits, Horizon has already been approached by several universities to jointly develop applications for their fuel cells. As they develop larger fuel cells, the possible applications for these fuel cells will only widen in scope. Horizon’s hope is that one day, they will be able to revive the hydrogen dream – one small step at a time.

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