KYOTO, Japan – Fuel cells -- those magic bullets filled with hydrogen that have been promoted for decade as a source of infinite energy -- is a technology too often over-promised and almost totally under-delivered.
The long, tortuous history of fuel cells -- always billed as ready for prime time next year -- has put the pursuers of the elusive dream under constant scrutiny, often forcing them to review the market landscape, alter their business strategy, and punt, while they continue their R&D projects. The result is a fuel-cell market chronically plagued with product delays and precious little demand.
Among a handful of promising companies whose hearts were set on the portable fuel-cell market, Japan's Rohm has recently become the first to blink. Although not ditching its nascent fuel-cell business, Rohm decided to change focus.
Rohm, a Kyoto-based manufacturer of semiconductor and passives, also a leader in silicon carbide (SiC) power devices, isn't a big name in the fuel-cell market -- just yet. But the company has been working with Aquafairy Corp., a Kyoto-based startup, and Kyoto University to develop solid fuel-type hydrogen fuel cells.
In an interview with EE Times, Rohm discussed the company's shift from its original goal of promoting fuel cells to charge smartphones to developing them for emergency backup power. The company made the decision less than a year after it demonstrated at various trade shows the company's first fuel-cell technology and prototypes.
While other fuel-cell suppliers including Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies (Singapore), myFC (Sweden), and Mass.-based Lilliputian Systems are sticking to their guns in pursuing the portable fuel-cell segment, they face stiff competition from conventional batteries that are much cheaper and broadly available.
After all, Lilliputian, earlier this year, announced its "Nectar" brand fuel cells (designed for recharging smartphones) at $299.99 with refill cartridges selling for $9.99. If you do the math, the headwind is clear.
In its Fuel Cell Industry Review 2013 published late September, the market research firm Fuel Cell Today acknowledged that they had to revise their final full-year 2012 figure for portable fuel-cell shipments down by around 30,000 units to 18,900 units due to product delays and a significantly lower-than-expected adoption rate.
Talking to EE Times, Akira Kamisawa, director of Rohm's fuel-cell business unit, acknowledged that the company had grossly underestimated the effort it would take to put products into the supply chain for the consumer market, compared to the business-to-business distribution channels Rohm is accustomed to.
Rohm originally envisioned its fuel cells as a smartphone charger.
Rohm, however, sees the alteration of its fuel-cell strategy neither as a technology defeat nor a vision failure. Rather, Kamisawa explained, this is the necessary first step to push Rohm fuel cells into where they're most needed today: emergency backup power, and off-grid power systems providing uninterruptible power supplies to critical infrastructure.
The story of Rohm tackling the nascent fuel-cell market illustrates the complexity of the market today. But the story also reveals more about Rohm's heritage, its legendary founder and the leading role the company has played in the interplay of academia and high-tech companies (including Kyocera, Omron, and Murata among others) in Japan's Kyoto region.
Unlike other Japanese chip companies, such as Renesas, Toshiba, and Fujitsu, many of which are a part of vertically integrated behemoths, Rohm remains small, focused on its specialties, and nimble in decision making.